1. Dameron, Carrie M.

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I am excited to share with you an excellent chapter by John Wyatt, Professor of Neonatal Paediatrics at University College, London, published by Christian Medical Fellowship U. K. in the United Kingdom in their new book, Lighting the Way: A Handbook for Christian Nurses & Midwives (Fouch & Butcher, 2017).

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God created mankind in his own image in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them (Genesis 1:27, NIV).


Modern Approaches to Personhood

What does it mean to be a person? Is it possible to be a human being but not a person? What duties do we owe to persons as opposed to nonpersons?


For centuries, it was generally accepted that the terms person and living human being were virtually synonymous. But over the last two decades, a number of influential modern philosophers, including Peter Singer and Sam Harris, have challenged traditional understanding of personhood. For Peter Singer, a person is a being who has a capacity for enjoyable experiences, for interacting with others, and for having preferences about continued life (Singer, 1995).


Once this kind of definition is accepted, there are a number of logical implications. First, it is immediately obvious that in order to be regarded as a person, you must have an advanced level of brain function. In fact, you must have a completely developed and normally functioning cerebral cortex.


Secondly, there must be a significant group of who are nonpersons. These include fetuses, newborn babies and infants who lack self-awareness, and a large group of children and adults with congenital brain abnormalities, severe brain injury, dementia, and major psychiatric illnesses.


Thirdly, there are many nonhuman beings who meet the criteria of persons. These include at least chimpanzees, gorillas, monkeys and dolphins but may also include dogs, pigs, and many other mammals. By this definition, in the foreseeable future, even some supercomputers may meet the criteria to be regarded as persons.


Singer argues that to make a moral distinction on the basis of species is to be guilty of a new crime, speciesism. Instead we should make moral distinctions on the basis of ethically relevant characteristics, such as the ability to choose and value your own life (Singer, 1995).


Of course there are major logical problems with this kind of definition. In effect, Singer has replaced one form of discrimination with another. Instead of discriminating on the basis of species, we should discriminate on the grounds of cortical function. In fact, if we are into name-calling, we could call him a corticalist. But why should corticalism be preferable to speciesism?



At the heart of this secular philosophical perspective is the idea that you earn the right to be called a person by what you can do, by demonstrating that your brain is functioning adequately, by thinking and choosing. How do we respond as Christians? What does it mean to be a person in the light of the Christian revelation?


Just as the three persons of the Trinity are individually unique, yet give themselves continually in love, so each human person is unique, yet made for relationship with others. Personhood is not something we can have in isolation; in Christian thinking, it is a relational concept. The renowned philosopher Descartes came up with the famous statement, "I think, therefore I am." It's a definition that led ultimately to the modern concepts of Singer and Harris.


By contrast, we might suggest an alternative Christian version, "You love me, therefore I am." My being comes, not from my rational abilities, but from the fact that I am known and loved-first by God himself, and secondly by other human beings. This is why the experience of rejection and isolation can be so psychologically devastating and why children who have never experienced love and acceptance fail to develop into normal healthy adults. But even if I am rejected by other humans, I am still a person because I am loved, most of all, by God.



For Peter Singer, my personhood depends on what I can do, on the functioning of my cerebral cortex. But in Christian thinking, my personhood rests on who I am, on the fact that God has called me into existence and continues to know and love me. In other words, personhood is a gift conferred by God's grace, not a quality earned by possessing a certain prescribed set of physical characteristics.


This Christian understanding of personhood is much more permanent, more resilient, than the secular one. By Peter Singer's worldview, your personhood might disappear at any moment, if your cortex started to malfunction. But in Christian thinking, whatever happens to you in the future, whatever disease or accident may befall your central nervous system, even if you are struck down by dementia or enter a persistent vegetative state, you will still be you: a unique and wonderful person, known and loved by God. It is God's love that preserves our identity throughout the whole of our lifetime-whatever tragic and unexpected events may happen to us-and on into our eternity. And even when we were in our mother's womb, God was loving us and calling us into existence (Psalm 139).



What does it mean to be a person? It's not just a question of academic philosophy. As Christian nurses and midwives, we are called to demonstrate the reality of what we believe. It is by our behavior, by our compassionate caring, by our sensitivity and respect for the dignity of every patient, the helpless, the confused, the unborn and the disabled, that we can really provide the answer.


From Wyatt, J. (2017). Human personhood & dignity. In S. Fouch, & C. Butcher (Eds.), Lighting the way: A handbook for Christian nurses & midwives (pp. 64-65). London, UK: Christian Medical Fellowship. Used with permission.


Author's Note: Thanks to Christian Medical Fellowship U. K., Steve Fouch, and John Wyatt. I would love to hear your thoughts on this article at


Singer P. (1995). Rethinking life and death. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. [Context Link]