Instilling Hope and Respecting Patient Autonomy: Reconciling Apparently Conflicting Duties

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Arts and Humanities | Bioethics and Medical Ethics | Ethics in Religion | Medicine and Health Sciences | Religion


In contemporary American medical practice, certain physicians are critical and wary of the current emphasis on patient autonomy in medicine, questioning whether it really serves the complex needs of severely ill patients. Physicians such as Eric Cassell and Thomas Duffy argue that the duty of beneficence should override the duty to respect autonomy when conflicts arise in clinical situations. After evaluating their claim that severe illness robs patients of their autonomy, I will argue that this perceived conflict between beneficence and autonomy is ill-conceived, resting on misperceptions about both the capacity for autonomy and the meaning of hope. Considering insights on hope from phenomenologist Gabriel Marcel and theologian William Lynch, as well as drawing upon a case study involving a bone marrow patient, I claim that respecting and nurturing patients' capacity for autonomy is a necessary condition for acting beneficently and fostering authentic hope.