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In this journal, Dr Daniel Daly, an American bioethicist, uses a principlist approach (respect for autonomy, non-maleficence, beneficence and justice) to argue that intravenous opiate users should not be denied repeat heart valve replacements if these are medically indicated, ‘unless the valve replacement significantly violates another’s autonomy or one or more of the three remaining principles’.1
In brief outline, the paper seeks to use a widely accepted ethical theory—‘principlism’ as developed by Beauchamp and Childress over the last 40 plus years and eight editions of their ground-breaking book Principles of Biomedical Ethics2—to resolve clinical disagreement about the ethics of denying medically indicated life-prolonging treatment to patients who continue or resume intravenous opiate use.
Dr Daly's argument in very brief summary is that in the context of contemporary American medical practice, such treatment is ethically justified—perhaps even ethically required—if requested or accepted by an adequately autonomous patient and thus respects the patient’s autonomy, if it is not harmful to the patient, if it is beneficial to the patient, and if it is fair and just in terms of Aristotle’s formal theory of justice according to which equals should be treated equally while unequals should be treated unequally in proportion to the morally relevant inequality or inequalities. Dr Daly focuses his argument around a typical case description where these conditions are met and therefore where, he concludes, repeat heart valve replacements ought to be provided.
As Dr Daly notes, principlism ‘is not without its problems; nonetheless it does provide a viable set of principles that are widely held by medical ethicists and inform the work of ethics committees at many secular medical facilities’.
DOI (declaration of interest): The writer of this editorial is a career-long supporter and defender of the use of ‘principlism’ or ‘the four principles …
Funding The author has not received any grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.
Competing interests None declared.
Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.
↵What they call the four traditional theories of justice based on utilitarianism, libertarianism, communitarianism and egalitarianism, along with more recent capability theories and well-being theories—see ref 2, pp 270–281