Autonomy and couples’ joint decision-making in healthcare

BMC Medical Ethics 19 (1):3 (2018)
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Abstract

Respect for autonomy is a key principle in bioethics. However, respecting autonomy in practice is complex because most people define themselves and make decisions influenced by a complex network of social relationships. The extent to which individual autonomy operates for each partner within the context of decision-making within marital or similar relationships is largely unexplored. This paper explores issues related to decision-making by couples for health care and the circumstances under which such a practice should be respected as compatible with autonomous decision-making. We discuss the concept of autonomy as it applies to persons and to actions, human interdependency and gender roles in decision-making, the dynamics and outcomes of couples’ joint decision-making, and the ethics of couples’ joint decision-making. We believe that the extent to which couples’ joint decision-making might be deemed ethically acceptable will vary depending on the context. Given that in many traditional marriages the woman is the less dominant partner, we consider a spectrum of scenarios of couples’ joint decision-making about a woman’s own health care that move from those that are acceptably autonomous to those that are not consistent with respecting the woman’s autonomous decision-making. To the extent that there is evidence that both members of a couple understand a decision, intend it, and that neither completely controls the other, couples’ joint decision-making should be viewed as consistent with the principle of respect for the woman’s autonomy. At the other end of the spectrum are decisions made by the man without the woman’s input, representing domination of one partner by the other. We recommend viewing the dynamics of couples’ joint decision-making as existing on a continuum of degrees of autonomy. This continuum-based perspective implies that couples’ joint decision-making should not be taken at face value but should be assessed against the specific cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds and personal circumstances of the individuals in question.

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