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Is there a right not to know?
  1. John Harris1,2
  1. 1 University of Manchester, Manchester, United Kingdom
  2. 2 Visiting Professor, Kings College London, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Professor John Harris, Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, Kings College London, London, UK; john.harris{at}

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In his subtle and well-argued paper,1 Ben Davies argues for a limited but still strong right not to know (RNTK) held by patients against medical professionals. Patients may have such a right against health professionals to be sure, but if and only if, that right has been granted to them by the health professionals in question, their professional body or rules regarding professional conduct. In my judgement, patients do not have a moral RNTK and should have no such legal right neither, for the simple and sufficient reason that the granting of such a right would conflict with the equally, if not more powerful rights, of all people to free speech and freedom of honest expression, rights which trump rights deriving from the agreement of professionals or professional bodies.

Ben Davies ends his paper, thus:

Opposition to the RNTK in practice, then, cannot derive solely from the claim that patients often have an obligation to acquire knowledge about their condition. Patients may have an obligation to know, and yet a right, held against medical professionals, not to be told information that they do not want to receive.1

Of course patients ‘may have an obligation to know, and yet a right, held against medical professionals, not to be told information that they do not want to receive’, but it happens that …

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  • 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 Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

  • Author note This paper owes much to an earlier paper that I wrote jointly with my colleague Kirsty Keywood which was published as 'Information, Ignorance and Autonomy' in the journal Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics. Publisher: Kluwer, 2001. The present paper concentrates solely on the ethical issues whereas our joint paper considered the legal dimensions of this issue in some detail. However, the present paper covers some of the same moral ground as that covered in 'Information, Ignorance and Autonomy'. Kirsty’s influence is still very much a feature of this paper and I acknowledge a substantial debt to her.

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