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Topic: Autonomy
June 24, 2014 | Posted By Paul Burcher, MD, PhD

I was recently surprised to read in the New York Times that a woman had undergone a cesarean section despite her refusal to consent to the procedure. The details of the case are not entirely clear from the article, so I do not want what follows to be understood as a specific comment on this case. However, the source of my surprise was my assumption that the ethics of refusal of consent were not in dispute.  The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology has taken a clear position on this: it is not permissible to perform surgery on a patient with decisional capacity without her consent. ACOG’s committee opinion, “Maternal Decision Making, Ethics, and the Law,” strongly discourages even attempting to seek a court order for treatment when a pregnant woman refuses cesarean section, and concludes with the following statement:

Pregnant women's autonomous decisions should be respected. Concerns about the impact of maternal decisions on fetal well-being should be discussed in the context of medical evidence and understood within the context of each woman's broad social network, cultural beliefs, and values. In  the absence of extraordinary circumstances, circumstances that, in fact, the Committee on Ethics cannot currently imagine, judicial authority should not be used to implement treatment regimens aimed at protecting the fetus, for such actions violate the pregnant woman's autonomy. 

This committee opinion gives six strong and compelling arguments for these conclusions, and I will not repeat them here, but I encourage readers to review them.  What I would like to now focus on is the thinking that may lead some physicians to believe it is ethically permissible to override a patient’s autonomous choice.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

February 17, 2014 | Posted By Bruce White, DO, JD

Last month, a New Mexico trial court judge ruled that a terminally ill patient had a constitutionally protected right to aid in dying from a physician without risking criminal prosecution for assisted suicide. Judge Nan G. Nash of the Second District Court in Albuquerque based her opinion in the New Mexico Constitution: “This court cannot envision a right more fundamental, more private or more integral to the liberty, safety and happiness of a New Mexican than the right of a competent, terminally ill patient to choose aid in dying.” Thus, the state became the fifth to permit physician-assisted suicide, following Oregon (1997, approved by voter referendum), Washington (2006, approved by voter referendum), Montana (2009, allowed by state supreme court opinion), and Vermont (2013, enacted by the state legislature).

The case was brought by two oncologists (Drs. Katherine Morris and Aroop Mangalik) who asked the court to clarify the state’s assisted suicide law and allow them write a lethal dose of a drug for a 49-year-old patient (Aja Riggs) with advanced uterine cancer. Critical to the case may have been the December trial testimony from the patient: “I don’t want to suffer needlessly at the end.”

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

January 30, 2014 | Posted By Marleen Eijkholt, PhD

When people asked my ethical opinion about Marlise Munoz’s case, the brain dead woman who was kept on support for her fetus, I believe they expected a quick answer: this is wrong. Clinical or medical ethicists are often called for a quick answer: this is right or this is wrong. However, answers about why X is right or why X is wrong do not come quickly. Often there are many rights and many wrongs in a story. My answer why it is unethical to keep Mrs Munoz on support is the result of a sum of rights and wrongs. In my opinion the ‘rights’ are less weighty than the ‘wrongs’, and I will set my arguments out below.

Marlise Munoz was 14 weeks pregnant when her husband found her unconscious and brought her to the hospital. The hospital found that she fulfilled the criteria of brain-death, but did not declare her brain death yet (according to the latest reports) . They kept her on ventilator and nutritional support and argued this was required under Texas law, suggesting that it was not allowed to withhold or withdraw life-sustaining treatment from a pregnant patient.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

December 5, 2013 | Posted By Marleen Eijkholt, PhD

Early November 2013: TB, a 32 year old deer hunter from Indiana, falls 16 feet from a tree while on a hunting trip and crushes his spinal cord. He injures his C3,4 and 5 vertebrae, but does not suffer any brain damage. TB’s prognosis includes paralysis from the shoulders down and potentially life-long dependence on a ventilator. His family asks the physicians if they can get him out of sedation and remove his ventilator, so that he can decide about how to proceed with his treatment. Once awake, TB hears his prognosis and asks to stop treatment. He dies one day after incurring his injury.

Several factors seem to have sparked the headlines and stir controversy, and I would like to focus on one of these. I question whether TB’s decision was and could be informed. Using this case, I propose that TB’s decision was perhaps a shot in the dark. I raise some of the pressing questions about informed consent in the clinical ethics context. I ask how we should ensure informed decision making, what we should do to enlighten patient’s perspectives and what we should do if patients refuse information that we consider material in the decision making process? 

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

July 18, 2013 | Posted By Paul Burcher, MD, PhD

Most practicing physicians learn the four principles of biomedical ethics at some point during medical school or residency training.  Despite the original intent of Tom Beauchamp and James Childress when they first described the four principles as co-equal in importance, we physicians tend to think first about patient autonomy and view it as the most critical of the four principles.  The least understood and appreciated of the four principles is nonmaleficence. (Even my word processor wants to change it to malfeasance, and so do many medical students I teach). 

The reason nonmaleficence is misunderstood, and therefore often ignored, is that the duty to “do no harm” seems impossible to follow.   Beauchamp and Childress are clear that harm is anything that counts as a setback to a patient—any pain or injury is therefore a harm—and practically everything we do to our patients is in some sense a harm.  The duty to nonmaleficence must be more complicated that simply doing no harm or it would be a duty to stop practicing medicine.\

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

May 20, 2013 | Posted By Jane Jankowski, LMSW, MS

Helping individuals with mental retardation maximize their autonomy and enjoy fulfilling quality life experiences is often at the core of ethical arguments surrounding healthcare options for individuals with these disabilities. Having worked with adults with mental retardation I have known some who gave birth, some who got married, and many who were sexually active. There are ranges in function and comprehension in any population group, and the options ought to apply fairly with consideration for the patient’s preferences and best interests guiding decision making. I will argue that in some cases, sterilization promotes autonomy and ought to be considered an option for those with mental retardation as it is for those without any cognitive impairment.  The benefits are the same for person with mental retardation as for any individual – freedom to engage in sexual activity without the risk if unwanted pregnancy. Unlike the old sterilization policies which allowed procedures to be performed over the objections of patients and guardians, this elective procedure may be permissible if an appropriate consent process is in place and engages the patient and his or her support network in the conversation. 

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

May 15, 2013 | Posted By Tara Bernardino

Mary Shanley argues against anonymous gamete donation on the basis of what she describes as the right of children conceived using donated gametes to “learn the identity of one’s genetic forebear.” Shanley believes this right stems from “some people’s desire to connect themselves to human history concretely as embodied beings…” I challenge Shanley’s viewpoint as being “progeny-centric,” because while it acknowledges the potential desire of the children created from gametes to learn information about the gamete donor, it fails to consider the rights or interests of that donor, both at the time of the donation, and later, when a child exists.  While I agree with Shanley that some children of gamete donors may desire identifying information about the donor, I disagree that those children have a right to access information about the donor beyond that which the donor agreed to provide or which was required at the time of donation such as genetic and medical history.  Instead I would propose a system where anonymity is optional, akin to the policy of open and closed adoption.  This approach recognizes the interests of the donor, respecting their right to privacy and medical confidentiality, while leaving open the possibility for any future children to inquire about their genetic origins and donor information.  

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

May 1, 2013 | Posted By Paul Burcher, MD, PhD

When Beauchamp and Childress wrote their first edition of Principles of Biomedical Ethics, Immanuel Kant figured prominently in their discussion of the principle of autonomy.  Now he warrants barely a mention in the same, much revised chapter of the sixth edition.  Why the substantial de-emphasizing of Kant’s philosophy, when he wrote such important ethical treatises in which the human ability to make free and autonomous choice is so central?  Isn’t his philosophy the basis for our biomedical principle of autonomy?  The surprising answer is no, it cannot be. One reason is that Kant’s philosophical use of the principle of autonomy is actually quite different than the biomedical principle.  The other answer is that Kant’s principle does not provide a philosophical justification for the protection of patient’s rights.  I will explain both of these perhaps surprising claims.  But I do believe there is still a role for Kantian autonomy in the discipline of bioethics:  it remains a valid criterion (or yardstick) for when physicians should accede to patient requests for treatment.

Autonomous choice for Kant is ethical choice.  When we choose a course of action because it is consistent with the Categorical Imperative, we are choosing autonomously because we are freely choosing to obey an ethical law rather than being a slave to our passions and desires—we are not being pushed along by the world, we are initiating a new action for reasons that are somewhat “otherworldly” because they are neither empirical nor material, the ethical law is a priori and therefore “above the fray”.  But patients choose a course of action in healthcare for many reasons, and most of these reasons are amoral, and some may even violate Kant’s Categorical Imperative, such as refusing treatment for a non-terminal condition.  Kant saw any “suicide” as a violation of the second statement of the Categorical Imperative because human life must never be treated as a means to an end, and suicide abandons life for some reason (intractable pain, depression, despair), thereby treating it as a means, not an end in itself.  The point of this is that most decisions in a healthcare setting do not qualify as autonomous under Kant’s framework, because they are not ethical decisions in a strict sense.  They are done for personal reasons, which need not conform to moral law.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

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BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.
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