Thursday, March 31, 2005


"Bioethics experts" and the Terri Schiavo tragedy

When I wrote this post on the Terri Schiavo tragedy, I included this language, intended as shocking and extreme examples of where we may end up as a result of incrementalism and the “slippery slope”:

So we start with Karen Ann Quinlan, begin talking about “preserving bodily functions by heroic means”, and move on to the idea that you can write a “living will”, a personal declaration of your wish not to be kept on a ventilator, then to the idea that you can execute a “health care power of attorney”, a written document that says you delegate authority to someone else to decide not to keep you on a ventilator, to Terri Schiavo. And a husband who clearly has a vested interest in seeing you die can decide to starve you to death while you’re not on a ventilator, and arguably not even brain-dead, and other relatives object and are willing to take responsibility.

We are clearly on an incremental path here. What’s next? I can starve my bedridden grandmother with advanced Alzheimer’s to death? I can decide to kill my severely disabled baby AFTER he is born? With all due respect to the law professors of the nation, you are full of crap. The slope is indeed slippery, and damned steep, too.

Imagine my surprise to find that my examples are neither shocking nor extreme. As explained by Wesley J. Smith, “Bioethicists” got there long before I did…and the mainstream view among “bioethics experts” is that both grandma and the baby are actually not “persons”, and therefore, not only can I kill them, I should harvest their organs while I’m at it!

Allen’s perspective is in fact relatively conservative within the mainstream bioethics movement. He is apparently willing to accept that “minimal awareness would support some criterion of personhood” — although he doesn’t say that awareness is determinative. Most of his colleagues are not so reticent. To them, it isn’t sentience per se that matters but rather demonstrable rationality. Thus Peter Singer of Princeton argues that unless an organism is self-aware over time, the entity in question is a non-person. The British academic John Harris, the Sir David Alliance professor of bioethics at the University of Manchester, England, has defined a person as “a creature capable of valuing its own existence.” Other bioethicists argue that the basic threshold of personhood should include the capacity to experience desire. James Hughes, who is more explicitly radical than many bioethicists (or perhaps, just more candid), has gone so far as to assert that people like Terri are “sentient property.”

So who are the so-called human non-persons? All embryos and fetuses, to be sure. But many bioethicists also categorize newborn infants as human non-persons (although some bioethicists refer to healthy newborns as “potential persons”). So too are those with profound cognitive impairments such as Terri Schiavo and President Ronald Reagan during the latter stages of his Alzheimer’s disease.

Personhood theory would reduce some of us into killable and harvestable people. Harris wrote explicitly that killing human non-persons would be fine because “Non-persons or potential persons cannot be wronged” by being killed “because death does not deprive them of something they can value. If they cannot wish to live, they cannot have that wish frustrated by being killed.”

And killing isn’t the half of it. Some of the same bioethicists who have been telling us how right and moral it is to dehydrate Terri Schiavo have also urged that people like Terri — that is, human non-persons — be harvested or otherwise used as mere instrumentalities. Bioethicist big-wig Tom Beauchamp of Georgetown University has suggested that “because many humans lack properties of personhood or are less than full persons, they…might be aggressively used as human research subjects or sources of organs.”


Such thinking is not fringe in bioethics, a field in which the idea of killing for organs is fast becoming mainstream. In 1997, several doctors writing for the International Forum for Transplant Ethics opined in The Lancet that people (like Terri) diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state should be redefined as dead for purposes of organ procurement:

If the legal definition of death were to be changed to include comprehensive irreversible loss of higher brain function, it would be possible to take the life of a patient (or more accurately to stop the heart, since the patient would be defined as dead) by a lethal injection, and then to remove the organs needed for transplantation subject to the usual criteria for consent.

Ah yes…the would-be organ harvesters take comfort in requiring “the usual criteria for consent”…which in Florida can be given by a “husband” openly living with and having children with some other woman over a period of several years. Over the objections of parents willing to assume responsibility. Based solely on hearsay evidence, evidence which would NOT be admissible in court for the purpose of deciding what to do with the “non-person’s” car, but IS admissible for purposes of deciding to starve the “non-person”, Terri Schiavo, to death.

This article by Wesley J. Smith is an absolute must-read. These excerpts are extensive, but the whole article is chilling. And please note, much of what Smith quotes is not new, and is considered “mainstream” in the field of “bioethics”.

Why do I suddenly feel like I’m already at the bottom of that slippery slope, looking up?

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