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Ethics of care challenge to advance directives for dementia patients
  1. William Jinwoong Choi1,2
  1. 1Center for Bioethics, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
  2. 2Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, USA
  1. Correspondence to William Jinwoong Choi, Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island 02903, USA; william_choi{at}


Advance directives for withholding life-saving treatment are controversial for dementia patients whose previously expressed wishes conflict with their currently expressed desires. To illustrate this ethical dilemma, McMahan conceives a hypothetical case in which an intellectually proud creative woman signs an advance directive stipulating her refusal to receive life-saving treatment if she contracts a fatal condition with dementia. However, when she develops dementia and forgets this advance directive, she contracts pneumonia and now expresses a desire to live. In response to such dilemmas, scholars like Norman Cantor have defended the moral authority of advance directives by giving credence to one’s prior competent wishes over one’s current incompetent preferences. I argue that their arguments, which are rooted in the principle of respect for autonomy, operate under ableist assumptions about incompetent persons and exclude other important features of respect. I propose an ethics of care model as an alternative moral approach that reconceptualises respect as a matter of caring about people’s contemporaneous interests, even if they are not competently conceived. It fosters the virtues of care by encouraging healthcare providers to recognise dementia patients as legitimate narrative agents capable of authoring their own evolving life story. I argue that the ethics of care model not only provides an ethical defence of the creative woman’s current incompetent desire to live despite her advance directive, but also vindicates our moral intuitions about what it means to demonstrate respect to dementia patients.

  • Ethics
  • Dementia
  • Advance Directives
  • Philosophy- Medical

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  • Contributors WJC is the guarantor and sole author of the paper, and was responsible for completing the initial draft as well as the final edits, formatting and submission of the paper for publication.

  • Funding The authors have 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.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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