What is a Person? How to Decide Which Human Lives Are Precious

Speaker: Categories: Mar 08, 1997


[55min, 30sec / 42min, 40sec]


"WANTED -- DEAD OR ALIVE!" That Old West poster headline, might be slightly modified to set the stage for the March San Diego Adventist Forum topic to read: "WANTED TO KNOW -- DEAD OR ALIVE?"

Who decides the answer to this question which has taken on major importance in recent years? Phrases such as physician assisted suicide or pulling the plug or no heroic measures pose major problems for today's society in general and the medical profession in particular!

Dr. Walters notes: "Advances in medical technology are forcing us to make value judgments about which lives should be sustained. Three out of four patients who die in the typical modern medical center in the United States could be sustained longer, but they are not." [emphasis supplied]

"Why," asks our March speaker. He then poses an answer: "Their moral status is not deemed sufficiently high by themselves or others for life sustenance. Bioethics," he continues, "is divided on criteria for determining moral status."

"Two main schools of thought exist: Physicalism and Personalism. In Physicalism the essence of a person is found in his/her biological makeup, and therefore we should try to save every human life possible. In Personalism the essence of a person is found in [the individual's] mental capacities and [his/her] ability to use these in satisfying ways. Some personalists are open to infanticide!"

What's your view? Which of these positions resonates best with your belief about personhood? How long have you held this view? What, if anything, has caused your view to change over time? What might influence your thinking to change -- again?

Jim Walters may help us consider a third Position. He states, "I advance a middle, common-sense approach, Proximate Personhood, arguing that the greater the proximity or nearness of the individual to that of undisputed personhood - - the greater the individual's moral status. I see this approach reflecting E. G. White's view that human nature is distinct in that it resembles a divine ability to think and to do."

Perhaps the to do portion of the above reference may be more easily verified than the to think aspect. And how much of the time must the person be able to think and to do -- for continuing, full days of consciousness or for some occasional days of consciousness or only under special medically induced periods of time?


James W. Walters is professor of Christian ethics at Loma Linda University, where he has taught for seventeen years. He specializes in neonatal and geriatric ethics. He has written numerous professional articles and published six books in bioethics. He is the executive editor of Adventist Today. His newest book, What Is a Person? An Ethical Exploration, is just off the press. An "essentially Adventist argument on a pressing contemporary issue is now a part of mainstream bioethics," Dr. Walters notes. This 200-page book, written for the thoughtful layperson, is available from the University of Illinois Press.

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