In 1891, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case about negligence that was really about personhood.
The plaintiff, the Union Pacific Railway Company, was asking the court to force a woman, Clara Botsford, to submit to a surgical examination. Why? Botsford was suing the company for negligence related to a top bunk in one of its train’s sleeping cars. The bunk fell while she was under it, “rupturing the membranes of the brain and spinal cord” and causing “permanent and increasing injuries.” The company wanted its own doctors to examine Botsford and confirm the diagnoses, but she did not consent to the examination.
“No right is held more sacred or is more carefully guarded by the common law than the right of every individual to the possession and control of his own person, free from all restraint or interference of others unless by clear and unquestionable authority of law.”
This is just one of many examples from U.S. case law illustrating that a big part of personhood is autonomy. In our society, people are supposed to have control over their own bodies and make independent decisions about their lives. This idea drives the modern medical concept of informed consent, in which an individual is supposed to give permission before receiving medical therapies or participating in a research study.
That autonomy principle, though, gets sticky when applied to a subset of humans that most of us would surely call persons: minors.
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