Terri Schiavo: A Right to Life Denied or a Right to Die Honored?

Constitutional Commentary 22:3 (Winter 2005).

There is a spectrum of positions on end of life issues, and on life issues generally. However, a crucial line of division exists between those who affirm, and those who deny, that the life of each human being possesses inherent and equal worth and dignity, irrespective not only of race, ethnicity, age, sex, etc., but also irrespective of stage of development, mental or physical infirmity, and condition of dependency.

People who deny this proposition frequently distinguish what they describe as “mere biological human life” from the life of a person. It is personal life, they say, that has value (even intrinsic value) and dignity; “mere biological life” does not. And personal life is the life of a being that possesses self-consciousness and, perhaps, developed capacities for characteristic human mental activity, such as conceptual thinking, deliberation, and choice.

So some people argue that there are human beings who are not yet persons–namely, those in the embryonic, fetal, and at least early infant stages of development–and other human beings who will never become, or are no longer, persons-the severely retarded, the seriously demented, those in permanent comas or persistent vegetative states. For people who hold this view, the question is not when does the life of a human being begin or end, but when does a human being qualify as a person,¬†and therefore a creature with a serious right to life. Those human beings whom they regard as non-persons, human individuals possessing merely biological life, do not possess such a right, though it may, depending on a variety of possible factors, be wrong to kill them for some reason other than respect for the inherent dignity of persons-for example, without the consent of their parents or others who have a claim to them. Peter Singer crystallized this general point that not all human beings have a right to life in a recent Letter to the Editor to the New York Times. Replying to an Op/Ed by Mario Coumo, Singer wrote: “The crucial moral question is not when human life begins, but when human life reaches the point at which it merits protection.” Singer, of course, believes that some human beings do not merit protection, namely those in the embryonic, fetal, and infant stages of development, as well as those who have not developed or who have irretrievably lost the capacities Singer identifies with personhood. I hold the opposite view, namely that all human beings, precisely in virtue of their humanity, possess fundamental dignity and merit protection.

University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota [pdf]