Questions of patient autonomy have formed an important part of ethical debate in medicine from at least the post-war period onwards. Although initially important as a counterweight to widespread medical paternalism, recent years have seen a reaction against a widely perceived ‘triumph of autonomy’. In particular, competent patients' refusal of life-saving or clearly beneficial treatment presents complex dilemmas for both healthcare professionals and ethicists. Discussion of the mechanism provided by the Israel Patient's Rights Act of 1996 for ethics committees to override refusal of treatment by such patients has provided several examples in which it seems an obligation to benefit the patient can outweigh concerns regarding respect for their autonomy. However, such analyses as have been undertaken so far may be seen to omit important elements of the moral decision-making process that takes place even when the latter appears to ‘win out’. In addition to helping better prepare clinicians to meet such challenges in the future, a fuller appreciation of those elements that are present in justified cases of coercive treatment may enable them to arrive at a better understanding of what autonomy itself can mean in a medical context.
- Applied and professional ethics
- informed consent
- laws and cases
- philosophical ethics
- right to refuse treatment
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Competing interests None.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.