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Neurological disorders, affective bioethics, and the nervous system: reconsidering the Schiavo case from a materialist perspective
  1. Matthew Wolf-Meyer
  1. Anthropology, Binghamton University, Binghamton, NY 13902, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr Matthew Wolf-Meyer, Anthropology, Binghamton University, Binghamton, NY 13902, USA; mwolfmey{at}


This article proposes a novel approach to bioethics, referred to as “affective bioethics”, which draws on traditions in anthropology, science and technology studies, disability studies, and Spinozist materialism. By focusing on the case of Michael and Terri Schiavo, in which Terri’s personhood and subjectivity are challenged by dominant forms of neurological reductivism in the USA, this article suggests that approaching her condition as a set of relations with the people in her life and her socio-technical environment may have helped to develop new ways to conceptualise personhood and subjectivity moving beyond the view of her as a non-person. Drawing on Michael Schiavo’s memoir of his legal battles, and Terri’s diagnosis and care, this article shows how Terri’s connections to the world disrupt American ideas about the isolatable individual as the basis for personhood and subjectivity. Attending to these interpersonal and socio-technical connections focuses bioethical attention on the worlds that individuals inhabit, and how those worlds might be designed to make more kinds of life livable and new forms of personhood and subjectivity possible.

  • disability
  • medical ethics/bioethics
  • literary studies

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  • Contributors This article was solely authored by the corresponding author.

  • Funding The author has not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.