Legal Personhood and the Beginning of Life in Northern Ireland.

Can the coroner inquire into the death of someone who was never born?

On Thursday the 21st of November the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland (NI) gave its judgement in a case between the Attorney General for NI, John Larkin, and the Senior Coroner for Northern Ireland. The case concerned whether the Attourney General could compel the coroner to convene an inquest into a still-birth. The coroner had declined to do so, arguing that it did not fall within the remit of his office. Briefly, as the role of the coroner is to investigate deaths there had to be an individual who was, legally speaking, alive and had subsequently died. Thus, historically, NI and, for that matter, UK coroners have not held inquests into still-births. The lower court had upheld the position of the coroner and the judgement alludeds to some of the concerns I raise here.

The question of when life and, in particular, human life begins has been persistent and contentious in biology, philosophy, theology and law. In bioethical thought there are a number of different accounts where it is common to distinguish between the start of life and the point at which a human organism attracts moral importance. Furthermore we might think that the human organism has different moral weights depending on the state of its development or, for that matter, demise. Such consdierations lead in a variety of directions, not least to the provocative argument that neonates might not meet the requirements for ‘personhood’ and therefore should not be considered (full) members of the moral community. It is not easy to resolve these ethical conundra and they will continue to trouble bioethical scholarship for the foreseeable future. However, the law cannot afford the luxury of uncertainty. Whilst we might recognise some degree of complexity and attempt to mediate between competing demands, ultimately the law has to adopt a position on when the ‘human organism’ becomes an individual, recognised by law and, therefore, a (legal) person.