I strongly believe that the morality and ethics of the Twenty-First Century will depend on how individuals and societies answer this question: Does life have ultimate value simply and merely because it is human?

If the answer is yes, then we can grapple with the many bioethical challenges of modern society, while retaining our moral bearings and ethical integrity. We can engage in adult stem cell research that offers so much potential to bring about medical treatments that could literally rebuild damaged organs. But we won’t engage in human cloning, a technological procedure that reduces human life to the status of a manufactured product.

We will care properly for seriously disabled people like Terri Schiavo, the brain injured woman from Florida whose pending dehydration has captured the attention of the world. We will honor their humanity by rehabilitating them to the extent possible and providing proper care regardless of the extent of their disability as beloved brothers and sisters who are flesh of our flesh and blood of our blood. But we won’t take away their food and water to ensure their death as occurs in all fifty states. (If you did that to a horse, you would go to jail; do it to a cognitively disabled human who needs a feeding tube and it is called medical ethics.)

But what if we answer no to the question I posed above? What if we decide as individuals and society that being human, in and of itself, is irrelevant to moral value? Then we have at least two other questions to ask. First, what is it exactly that does confer moral value upon “a life?” And second, if a human life does not possess this subjective quality or qualities, what are the potential consequences to that human?

Disturbingly, many of nation’s leading bioethicists strongly believe that the proper answer to the question I posed above is no. They believe that cognitive capacity is the proper measure of what gives life value. Those who possess sufficient sentience-and for many bioethicists this includes animals-are known as “persons.” Those who do not pass muster, humans included, are known as “non-persons.”

“Personhood theory” excludes some humans from the moral community. These so-called human “non-persons” include all unborn life, newborn infants (although they are sometimes called “potential persons”), people with serious cognitive disabilities like Terri Schiavo and former President Ronald Reagan, and perhaps even psychotics if they are sufficiently divorced from reality.

In predominate bioethics thinking, such humans may not have the right to life or bodily integrity. Thus, cloning is not only acceptable, but so too may be genetic engineering toward the end of creating a “transhumanist” utopia that is intended to literally bring about a post-human race. People with serious cognitive incapacities are being seen as potential organ farms. Indeed, two prominent researchers recently said, “that individuals who desire to donate their organs and who are either neurologically devastated or imminently dying should be allowed to donate their organs, without first being declared dead.” (Critical Care Medicine 2003: 31(9): 2391-2396.) Animal liberationists argue that cognitively disabled humans should be used in medical research in place of animals with higher sentience.

Bioethics and biotechnology will determine the human future and the morality of our society. The stakes could not be higher. If these endeavors are pursued from a sanctity/equality of life foundation, there may be no limit to what can be accomplished. But if we accept personhood theory and the relativistic approach of the modern bioethics movement, we could see a rebirth of eugenics thinking and its attendant consequences.

The CBC believes these issues are crucial to a truly human future and intends to engage them energetically by building the intellectual case for and arguing passionately on behalf of, the equal moral worth of all of us. We believe that it does matter whether a life is human. If you do too, we need your encouragement and your support. We know we can count on you and look forward to working with you in the years to come.

Wesley J. Smith is a special consultant to the CBC. His most recent book is Culture of Death: The Assault on Medical Ethics in America.