As one starts to look at the ongoing debates in bioethics, there seems to be a cacophony of voices and positions being broadcast with little common ground or basis heard. But once you scratch the surface of the various positions and statements, they all are based on a foundation of what it means to be a person. So what’s the big deal about a person. When I go to work or school, I meet all sorts of persons. They all seem to act and look like our idea of a person, and I think most people would agree that those are persons. That agreement breaks down, however, when you go to visit the classrooms for the disabled, the newborn intensive care unit, or the nursing home. These people for the most part resemble what we would consider a person, but some of them don’t talk or walk and some don’t even seem to know that you’re there. Are they persons? What about the early embryo in the uterus or frozen in liquid nitrogen after in vitro fertilization? There isn’t anything there that looks like me or talks or shows awareness. Is that a person?

So what’s the big deal about being a person? The big deal is that a person is an entity which has certain protections, which we label rights, that are inherently present just because the person exists. Most of us know the famous phrase from the Declaration of Independence that states, “All men are created equal and are imbued by their Creator with certain inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness .” What this means is that these are rights that we have because we are persons. As inalienable rights, they are give to us by our Creator God. They do not come from the government and therefore cannot be taken away by the government. Most of us take these rights for granted. But what about the groups I mentioned above? Do they have these rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (or property)? That is the underlying battle that occurs in the arguments of such disparate areas such as euthanasia, cloning, embryonic stem cell research, and patient confidentiality.

Consider the following example in embryonic stem cell research. The source of embryonic stem cells is an embryo that has undergone fertilization and a few early cell divisions. If you would look at it under the microscope, it would look like a little blob of cells or soap bubbles. A scientist, using special techniques, can peel a few of the cells off and then experiment on them, trying to grow new hearts or kidneys for patients needing a transplant. Or he or she might try injecting them in the spinal cord of an animal with an injury to its brain or spinal cord and see if it will grow into new tissue, replacing the lost or damaged tissue. As a result of the harvesting these cells, the embryo has to be destroyed. Now, is that embryo a person or isn’t it? If it is, then it has a right to life which is being violated by the procedure. If it doesn’t, then no problem. As long as the scientist owned the cells he is working on, then he has the freedom to dispose of them as he pleases.

This can be applied to the other areas mentioned above. Do the people involved qualify as persons, which gives them the protection of these rights, or are they not, in which case they can be used or disposed of in the same way we would handle our clothes or toys? The definition of a person is the central fundamental principle that lies at the root of most of the debates going on in the courts, the legislature, the hospital, and hopefully the church. I encourage all to give this some thought. (2001)

David Pauls is a general surgeon in Manhattan, Kansas, and board member of the CBC.