The construct of personhood is used to give a certain moral, legal or other status to an entity to declare one as person. To declare an entity a non-person allows for a different legal and moral treatment of the entity. The narrative around personhood is one aspect that influences how disabled people were and are treated. Labelling one as non-person denying one personhood status allows for various eugenic practices from sterilization to infanticide and pre-birth de-selection.
History of Personhood
Personhood has been discussed within theological, philosophical, legal and scientific discourses for a long time with no consensus in sight (Aksoy, 1997; MacDonald, 2002; Noonan, 1998; Olson, 1997; Schechtman, 2007). Who is seen as a person has changed over time and continues to change (Aksoy, 1997; Hamilton, 1991; Rose, 1996; Hudson, 1999; Bird, 1999; Reiss, 2003; Chambers, 2007; Wilkinson, 2008). Slaves, women and children were seen as non-persons at one time (Chambers, 2007; Kant, 1983; Irwin, 1999). In Canada the Person’s case from 1929 established that women were persons to the full extend. Up to the 1929 Supreme Court of Canada decision the word 'persons' in Section 24 of the British North America Act (the at that time highest law in Canada) was interpreted by the Canadian government to mean ‘men’ (Famous Five Foundation). Efforts are under way to declare certain animals as persons (Cavalieri, 1995; Wise, 2010). Whether a fetus is a person has been discussed extensively in the abortion discourse (Wertz, & Fletcher, 1993a; Wetz, & Fletcher, 1993b), as is whether the embryo is a person. Recently the question whether cyborgs are persons and the concept of cyberhood is discussed (MacDonald, 2002). Whether artificial intelligence could be a person is another discussion under way (MacDonald, 2002). A lively discussion exists also around the personhood of disabled people (see below).
Criteria for Personhood
Criteria for personhood are proposed and discussed by many for a long time with ever changing criteria and with no consensus in sight (Chappell, 2011; Beauchamp, 1999; Macklin, 1983; Dewing, 2008; Anderson, 1980; Sullivan, 2003; Hui, 2004; Barresi, 1999; Farah, 2007; Parik, 2013; Crosby, 1996; Beller, 1994; Tooley, 1988; Scott, 1990; Rivard, 1991; Kester, 1993; Fishman, 1989).
To give just one lists of criteria of personhood proposed. Joseph Fletcher a bioethicist proposed the following 15 criteria for being a person:
1. Minimum intelligence: Below IQ 40 individuals might not be persons; below IQ 20 they are definitely not persons.
2. Self-awareness: We note the emergence of self-awareness in babies; and we note when it is gone, for instance, due to brain damage.
3. Self-control: Because a person understands cause and effect, he or she can effectively work toward fulfilling freely-selected goals.
4. A sense of time: Persons can allocate their time toward purposes; non-persons 'live' completely in the present moment, like animals.
5. A sense of futurity: Persons are concerned about their futures; persons lay plans and carry them out; they build their futures.
6. A sense of the past: Persons have memories of their pasts; they can recall facts at will; they honor the past.
7. The capacity to relate to others: Persons are social animals; they form bonds with others, both intimate and collective.
8. Concern for others: Persons always reach out to others; non-persons draw into themselves, even pathologically.
9. Communication: Persons communicate with other persons; if they become completely cut off, they become sub-personal.
10. Control of existence: Persons take responsibility for their lives; those who do not guide their own behavior are sub-personal.
11. Curiosity: Persons naturally want to know. If they lose this desire to know, they are less human.
12. Change and changeability: Persons can grow into new phases of life; If they resist change completely and totally, they are sub-personal.
13. Balance of rationality and feeling: Persons have both reason and emotion; one who is distorted either way is not whole.
14. Idiosyncrasy: All persons are different from one another; the less individuality, the less personhood.
15. Neo-cortical function: Personhood requires cerebration; if the higher brain is dead, there is no consciousness, no personhood.
Personhood and disabled people
The answer to the question of what entails a person is one of great consequences for disabled people. Disabled people are already seen as being at the margin of personhood (Kittay, 2008). Certain levels of cognition is one criterion often used for personhood one which impact in particular people seen as having intellectual impairments (Kittay, 2008; Biesold, 1999). On the other hand even if one is labeled a person that might not mean much. In Nazi Germany being a “person” as such was not a safeguard as sterilizations were performed on “any person suffering from hereditary diseases” (Biesold, 1999).
The UN based documents use the term “person” such as the United Nations Convention on the rights of persons with disabilitie (United Nations, 2006). However the UN only counts an entity that is born to be a person making the convention not applicable to guide pre-birth eugenic practices. Many existing national Anti-disability discrimination laws use the term “person”. The resolutions of the bioethics workshops at the 6th World Assembly of Disabled People International (DPI) 2002 states e.g.
Resolutions: Theme: Bioethics Topic: Genetics & Discrimination
I we demand the right to be different II We believe that no parent has the right to design and select their unborn child to be according to their own desires and no parent has the right to design their born child according to their own desires. III We defend and demand a concept of "person" that is not linked to a certain set of abilities.
How we generate the legal and moral status of an entity is of importance to disabled people. Depending which criteria are used certain disabled people might see a decrease in their legal protection. However as history showed being legally protected and given rights is not just important for disabled people. Depending on criteria used a variety of other groups experienced a lack of protection and rights. Rationality as a criterion was not only used with negative consequences for disabled people but also for women. In the future with the advancing abilities to modify the genetic and non-genetic abilities of humans beyond the species-typical we might see the development of new criteria that would give one full rights and protection and full personhood.
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