Personhood: the Central Question in Medical Ethics

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Personhood: The central question in Medical Ethics
A patient is lying on a hospital bed hooked up to several machines regulating his bodily functions. The doctor has informed the family that the patient is brain dead. His spouse makes the decision to pull the plug but his mother argues against it. It is the mothers opinion that her son is still alive, and deserves to be treated like a person, even though his brain is no longer functioning. The spouse holds the opinion that any trace of her loved one has left with the death of his brain and only his body remains. Suddenly, both remember the patients wishes to not be sustained on life support, and they collectively decide to pull the plug. This example illustrates the central debate in the ethics of medicine: What constitutes a person? Does the level of brain activity characterize an individual as a person? Is a persons body simply “on loan from the biomass”? The answers to these questions determine the outcome of every medical decision from Abortion to Euthanasia. An analysis of the main arguments arising in these controversial issues will serve to illustrate this point.

The idea of personhood is readily apparent in the ethical debate concerning Abortion. The question of whether a fetus is a person surrounds the entire idea. On the one hand it is argued that if a fetus is a person, then that person has a right to life, and to kill it would violate that right. The opposite side of the argument claims that the the fetus is but a cellular growth and has no human properties. The question of personhood is important here because it determines and issue which may occur after it has been answered. If the fetus is a person, then it is a separate entity from that of the pregnant woman. It may share the same nourishment, but it has its own separate nervous system and brain. It is not simply a growth such as an extra limb or a tumor, which can be removed easily. If this were the case then an abortion would not be...
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