Relational autonomy or undue pressure? Family's role in medical decision-making

Scand J Caring Sci. 2008 Mar;22(1):128-35. doi: 10.1111/j.1471-6712.2007.00561.x.


The intertwining ideas of self-determination and well-being have received tremendous support in western bioethics. They have been used to reject medical paternalism and to justify patients' rights to give informed consent (or refusal) and execute advanced directives. It is frequently argued that everyone is thoroughly unique, and as patients are most knowledgeable of and invested in their own interests, they should be the ones to make voluntary decisions regarding their care. Two results of the strong focus on autonomy are the rejection of the image of patients as passive care recipients and the suspicion against paternalistic influence anyone may have on patients' decision-making process. Although the initial focus in western bioethics was on minimizing professional coercion, there has been a steady concern of family's involvement in adult patients' medical decision-making. Many worry that family members may have divergent values and priorities from those of the patients, such that their involvement could counter patients' autonomy. Those who are heavily involved in competent patients' decision-making are often met with suspicion. Patients who defer to their families are sometimes presumed to be acting out of undue pressure. This essay argues for a re-examination of the notions of autonomy and undue pressure in the contexts of patienthood and relational identity. In particular, it examines the characteristics of families and their role in adult patients' decision-making. Building on the feminist conception of the relational self and examining the context of contemporary institutional medicine, this paper argues that family involvement and consideration of family interests can be integral in promoting patients' overall agency. It argues that, in the absence of abuse and neglect, respect for autonomy and agency requires clinicians to abide by patients' expressed wishes.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Advance Directives / ethics
  • Advance Directives / psychology
  • Conflict, Psychological
  • Cooperative Behavior
  • Cultural Diversity
  • Decision Making / ethics*
  • Dissent and Disputes
  • Family / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Individuality
  • Informed Consent / ethics
  • Informed Consent / psychology
  • Morals
  • Paternalism / ethics
  • Patient Participation / methods
  • Patient Participation / psychology*
  • Patient Rights / ethics*
  • Personal Autonomy*
  • Professional-Family Relations / ethics
  • Role*