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Autonomy in medical ethics after O’Neill
  1. G M Stirrat1,
  2. R Gill2
  1. 1Centre for Ethics in Medicine University of Bristol, Bristol, UK
  2. 2Michael Ramsey Chair of Modern Theology, University of Kent, UK
  1. Correspondence to:
 G M Stirrat
 Centre for Ethics in Medicine University of Bristol, Bristol, UK;


Following the influential Gifford and Reith lectures by Onora O’Neill, this paper explores further the paradigm of individual autonomy which has been so dominant in bioethics until recently and concurs that it is an aberrant application and that conceptions of individual autonomy cannot provide a sufficient and convincing starting point for ethics within medical practice. We suggest that revision of the operational definition of patient autonomy is required for the twenty first century. We follow O’Neill in recommending a principled version of patient autonomy, which for us involves the provision of sufficient and understandable information and space for patients, who have the capacity to make a settled choice about medical interventions on themselves, to do so responsibly in a manner considerate to others. We test it against the patient–doctor relationship in which each fully respects the autonomy of the other based on an unspoken covenant and bilateral trust between the doctor and patient. Indeed we consider that the dominance of the individual autonomy paradigm harmed that relationship. Although it seems to eliminate any residue of medical paternalism we suggest that it has tended to replace it with an equally (or possibly even more) unacceptable bioethical paternalism. In addition it may, for example, lead some doctors to consider mistakenly that unthinking acquiescence to a requested intervention against their clinical judgement is honouring “patient autonomy” when it is, in fact, abrogation of their duty as doctors.

  • autonomy
  • medical ethics
  • patient–doctor relationship

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