Respect: or, how respect for persons became respect for autonomy

J Med Philos. 2004 Dec;29(6):665-80. doi: 10.1080/03605310490883028.


This article provides an intellectual archeology of how the term "respect" has functioned in the field of bioethics. I argue that over time the function of the term has shifted, with a significant turning point occurring in 1979. Prior to 1979, the term "respect" connoted primarily the notion of "respect for persons" which functioned as an umbrella which conferred protection to autonomous persons and those with compromised autonomy. But in 1979, with the First Edition of Principles of Biomedical Ethics by Beauchamp and Childress, and the report of the Ethical Advisory Board (EAB) of the (then) Department of Health, Education, and Welfare entitled Research on In Vitro Fertilization, usage shifts from "respect for persons" to "respect for autonomy." Two results: 1) those with compromised autonomy are no longer protected by the canons of "respect" but rather the less overriding canons of beneficence; and 2) the term "respect" functions increasingly as a rhetorical device in public bioethics discourse.

MeSH terms

  • Bioethical Issues*
  • Bioethics*
  • Fertilization in Vitro / ethics
  • Humans
  • Personal Autonomy*
  • Terminology as Topic