Relational autonomy: what does it mean and how is it used in end-of-life care? A systematic review of argument-based ethics literature

BMC Med Ethics. 2019 Oct 26;20(1):76. doi: 10.1186/s12910-019-0417-3.


Background: Respect for autonomy is a key concept in contemporary bioethics and end-of-life ethics in particular. Despite this status, an individualistic interpretation of autonomy is being challenged from the perspective of different theoretical traditions. Many authors claim that the principle of respect for autonomy needs to be reconceptualised starting from a relational viewpoint. Along these lines, the notion of relational autonomy is attracting increasing attention in medical ethics. Yet, others argue that relational autonomy needs further clarification in order to be adequately operationalised for medical practice. To this end, we examined the meaning, foundations, and uses of relational autonomy in the specific literature of end-of-life care ethics.

Methods: Using PRESS and PRISMA procedures, we conducted a systematic review of argument-based ethics publications in 8 major databases of biomedical, philosophy, and theology literature that focused on relational autonomy in end-of-life care. Full articles were screened. All included articles were critically appraised, and a synthesis was produced.

Results: Fifty publications met our inclusion criteria. Twenty-eight articles were published in the last 5 years; publications were originating from 18 different countries. Results are organized according to: (a) an individualistic interpretation of autonomy; (b) critiques of this individualistic interpretation of autonomy; (c) relational autonomy as theoretically conceptualised; (d) relational autonomy as applied to clinical practice and moral judgment in end-of-life situations.

Conclusions: Three main conclusions were reached. First, literature on relational autonomy tends to be more a 'reaction against' an individualistic interpretation of autonomy rather than be a positive concept itself. Dichotomic thinking can be overcome by a deeper development of the philosophical foundations of autonomy. Second, relational autonomy is a rich and complex concept, formulated in complementary ways from different philosophical sources. New dialogue among traditionally divergent standpoints will clarify the meaning. Third, our analysis stresses the need for dialogical developments in decision making in end-of-life situations. Integration of these three elements will likely lead to a clearer conceptualisation of relational autonomy in end-of-life care ethics. This should in turn lead to better decision-making in real-life situations.

Keywords: Decision making; End of life; Medical ethics; Relational autonomy; Respect for autonomy; Review.

Publication types

  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Decision Making*
  • Dissent and Disputes
  • Humans
  • Informed Consent / ethics
  • Morals
  • Philosophy, Medical
  • Physician-Patient Relations
  • Relational Autonomy*
  • Terminal Care / ethics*