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Health Care Anal. 2001;9(3):299-319.

Historical and philosophical reflections on patient autonomy.

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Center for Philosophy and History of Science, 745 Commonwealth Avenue, Room 506, Boston University, Boston, MA 02215, USA.


Contemporary American medical ethics was born during a period of social ferment, a key theme of which was the espousal of individual rights. Driven by complex cultural forces united in the effort to protect individuality and self-determined choices, an extrapolation from case law to rights of patients was accomplished under the philosophical auspices of 'autonomy.' Autonomy has a complex history; arising in the modern period as the idea of self-governance, it received its most ambitious philosophical elaboration in Kant's moral philosophy. In examining the Kantian construction, it is evident that neither his universal moral imperative nor his rigorous application of self-legislated ethical action can sustain our own notions of moral agency in a pragmatic, pluralistic society. But the Kantian position is useful in highlighting that self-governance is not equivalent to 'autonomy,' and this distinction defines the limits of autonomy in the clinical setting. A critique of Engelhardt's idea of 'principle of permission' is used to illustrate autonomy's eclipse as a governing principle for medical ethics.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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