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G114(P) Children with Exceptional Healthcare Needs: “Personhood” and Moral Standing in Community
  1. JM Balfe
  1. Community Child Health, Tallaght Hospital, Dublin, Ireland


For almost 400 years philosophers have debated the attributes necessary for “personhood” or full moral status. While some argue that defining the moral status of children with profound intellectual disability and exceptional healthcare needs is an academic pursuit which fails to ensure that their best interests are met, I believe that the issue warrants careful consideration. Personhood confers moral status and protection by moral norms, if children with exceptional healthcare needs do not have full moral status, it could be argued that they are not holders of human rights.

A number of criteria necessary for “Personhood” have been proposed including attributes of the individual, either biological or psychological, or factors regarding an individual’s membership of a species or community and their potential to develop relationships within that group. Although children with profound intellectual disability do not have the necessary cognitive ability to meet the psychological criteria for personhood, I argue that as members of the same species all human have moral status and deserve protection.

By considering children and adults with profound intellectual disability as holders of full moral status, an obligation to protect their rights is conferred. Society has an obligation to ensure that their best interests are met. The law has repeatedly stated that competent adults have a right to refuse treatment; the right to die is inherent in law. In this respect if children with exceptional health care needs have full moral status they do not only have the right to medical treatment but also the right to be protected from unnecessary, futile and potentially painful procedures in the absence of any hope of cure. Thus when considering the best interests of children with exceptional healthcare needs, attempts must be made to ensure that their rights as persons are respected.

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