Personhood – And the Assisting of Dying

Recently reviewing an essay on Organ Donation which I wrote in 1998,[1] I came across some thoughts  on the definition personhood.  How a “person” is defined plays a vital role in how we approach things like vital organ donation and assisted death.  Our society is rapidly moving to a definition of personhood that connects a person’s intrinsic value to their ability to think.  Those with less ability to think are considered to have less value and are more easily deemed expendable.

In my essay, I quoted from B. Holly Vautier’s paper titled, Definition of Death,[2] where she describes two divergent definitions of personhood. First is the inclusive understanding of personhood, which acknowledges the human being as a single entity having both material body and an immaterial soul. This is founded on the Bible’s record of creation where it says,

the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. (Genesis 2:7)

Theologian, Louis Berkhof describes it this way:

Every act of man is seen as an act of the whole man. It is not the soul but man that sins; it is not the body but man that dies; and it is not merely the soul, but man, body and soul, that is redeemed by Christ.[3]

The Heidelburg Catechism gives the same inclusive description of man saying,

That I with a body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my saviour Jesus Christ.[4]

The other definition of personhood is the exclusive definition, where what defines a person is their ability to think.  It depends on the brain being able to interact.  When this is gone, the person is considered gone.   It allows for the separation of the living body from the person.   This is an exclusive, rather than an inclusive, understanding of personhood.  Holly Vautier writes,

The prevailing moral ethos includes the value a culture places on individual human life. Where a strong Judeo-Christian ethic is evident, for example, life is regarded as a gift and a trust. It is seen as an intrinsic rather than merely an instrumental good…This sense of the sanctity or dignity of all human life has been influential in maintaining traditional western prohibitions against abortion, suicide, euthanasia, and hazardous medical experimentation on human subjects.

When an ethic which endorses life for all persons is replaced by an ethic of selective personhood, people are valued on conditional terms. Those who qualify for personhood (such as healthy, competent adults) retain their valued status in society. But those who fail to qualify for personhood (fetal life, disabled infants, incompetent adults, individuals who have lost their neocortical functions, for example) lose their status as valued members of the society. When loss of personhood is equated with worthlessness, depersonalization can too easily constitute a license to kill…Abortion is legal. The fiction of non-personhood, as urged by Marks, has reached even beyond Roe v Wade. It has extended into the special care nursery, where Drs Duff and Campbell have provided involuntary euthanasia for disabled newborns. these physicians have publicly justified allowing death as a “management option” when “the hope of meaningful personhood” is absent.[5]

Vautier continues,

As medical technology advances, there will be an increasing temptation to depersonalize individuals and groups under the aegis of social needs. How we resolve the issue of personhood will determine when our social obligations to individuals begin and end…The classification of human beings as non-persons opens the door to a utilitarian ethics in which medical treatment is granted or denied on the basis of quality of life or economic criteria. Since a non-personhood policy implies that individual life is dispensable, it could lead to the sanctioning of the procurement of donor organs from dying patients.[6]

We must uphold the intrinsic value of each person.  Psalm 139 teaches us that each life, yet unformed in a mother’s womb, is important to God. We were individual persons from conception. This was the case even before our brain was formed. According to God, personhood on this earth begins at conception. The development of the physical presence of the brain is not what makes us important as individuals to God. If the development of the brain does not define personhood, is it right to claim that the loss of brain function (called brain death) takes away our personhood? A true definition of personhood must include both body and soul. When the Preacher in Ecclesiastes describes death, he says, “then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7, KJV). The body and the soul, that define the person, are not separated until death.  Although there is separation after death, what happens to the body remains connected to the person.[7]

How, then, can we say that a person has died when it is still possible to keep the body from beginning to decay and from returning to the dust of the ground, as we do with vital organ donation? I believe that as long as the life blood continues to flow in the body, keeping the body from the grave, we can not say that the soul has “returned unto God” (Hebrews 9:27).  How can we quietly accept the destruction of the yet unborn through abortion?  How can we accept the destruction of many tiny conceived persons, that occur through the process of invitro fertilization?  How can we accept the assisted killing of of those who consider life no longer worth while?  How can we begin to even talk about the killing of the mentally handicapped and demented?

As a society, we can do this because we have moved to an exclusive definition of who is a person, rather than the inclusive definition given to us by the Lord God in the Bible!

May God be merciful to us.

[1] 1998 Speech on Organ Donation – Establishing a Biblical Perspective – presented at the Elders and Deacons Conference of the Free Reformed Churches of North America on October 17, 1998. Found at  https:/

[2] B. Holly Vautier, “Definition of Death”, in Dignity and Dying: a Christian Appraisal, edited by John Kilner et. al., William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan. p 97.

Holly Vautier’s essay Definition of Death can also be found at (this site is not available in https:// as of Jan 24, 2019

[3] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 1939, p192.

[4] Q&A 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism

[6] B. Holly Vautier, p98-99.

[6] B. Holly Vautier, p100.

[7] Further comments on the connection between the body and soul are available in a related paper I wrote titled, Comments on the Doctrine of Body and Soul. This paper can be found at


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