Argument: Euthanasia is falsely based on the idea that the ill can lose their identity


Patrick Lee. “Personhood, Dignity, Suicide, and Euthanasia”. The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly.” Autumn 2001, Vol.1 No.3 – “Human Life and Personhood

The case against suicide and euthanasia is based on the proposition that human life is a basic, intrinsic good, a good that ought at all times to be respected. But some have argued that human life is not always a good. One very important argument for this position is that those who are permanently unconscious or demented are no longer persons. The argument mirrors a similar argument regarding abortion, though it has a different kind of appeal in the context of euthanasia. Suppose Grandfather has a stroke, his son and daughter call the ambulance, and he is brought to the hospital. As a result of the stroke he loses significant memory and becomes demented. Suppose he no longer recognizes his family and can no longer carry on a conversation. His family come to visit him. They spontaneously react: “That’s just not Grandfather anymore. Grandfather — the lovable, affable person we have known for years — is just not there any more!” This is an understandable reaction. But some proponents of euthanasia articulate this reaction into an argument. It is wrong to kill persons (they argue), but the person who was living at his family’s home exists no longer. True, it would be wrong to kill Grandfather, but that (meaning the human organism now hooked up to various tubes in the hospital) is not Grandfather. So, a week later the doctors in charge propose that this isn’t really Grandfather any more either and that therefore we should withdraw nutrition and hydration. Keeping this organism alive who, or which, is not Grandfather, and is not a person, is futile. Proponents of euthanasia add that the doctors should be allowed to hasten the demise of this organism by more active methods. In short: it is not a person, so it is not murder to kill it.

This argument indicates how fundamental the issues at stake in this debate are. If the entity that was lying in his bed and talking to you two weeks ago (Grandfather) is not the same entity as the one these doctors propose to kill — but plainly it’s the same human organism — this can only be because Grandfather is not a human organism. What then is Grandfather, that is, what is he when he is alive and conscious before his trip to the hospital? Proponents of euthanasia are usually not so clear about the answer to this question. But if Grandfather is not a human organism, then he must be either a spiritual subject somehow associated with a human organism, or a series of experiences — a nonsubstantial consciousness sustained or embodied somehow in this organism during certain stages of its existence. In other words, this popular argument for euthanasia relies on an implicit denial that we are essentially bodily beings. The body and bodily life are treated as interesting fools or instruments good just insofar, and for as long as, they enable us to have and enjoy various experiences.

For example, speaking of human beings in the “persistent vegetative state,” Peter Singer argues as follows:

In most respects, these human beings do not differ importantly from disabled infants. They are not self-conscious, rational, or autonomous, and so considerations of a right to life or of respecting autonomy do not apply. If they have no experiences at all, and can never have any again, their lives have no intrinsic value. Their life’s journey has come to an end. They are biologically alive, but not biographically.

This view of the human person is seriously mistaken. Human persons are not spiritual subjects who have bodies; they are not just series of experiences, mere consciousnesses, or conscious information related to their bodies as software to the hardware in a computer. Human persons are living, organic animals — free and rational animals, but essentially animals nonetheless. What I am, the thing the word “I” refers to (or ‘he’, ‘him’, and so on) is a human, physical organism. So, the time that this human organism comes to be is the time that I come to be. And I do not cease to be until this physical organism ceases to be.13 The accidental characteristics or properties I have are distinct from the thing that I am. Such accidental properties as my height, my shape, my color, can come to be or cease to be at a different time than the time that I come to be or cease to be. However, since the human, physical organism is what I am, rather than a property I have, I cannot come to be or cease to be at a different time than the time that this human organism comes to be or ceases to be. It is the same with all human beings, of course. Thus, it makes no sense to say that, yes, the same physical organism that Grandfather was is Iying on the hospital bed, but Grandfather has ceased to be. Grandfather does not cease to be until the physical organism which he is ceases to be.” [see more of this article]