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J Med Philos. 2015 Aug;40(4):451-72. doi: 10.1093/jmp/jhv011. Epub 2015 Jun 11.

Re-Thinking the Role of the Family in Medical Decision-Making.

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St. Edwards University, Austin, Texas, USA


This paper challenges the foundational claim that the human family is no more than a social construction. It advances the position that the family is a central category of experience, being, and knowledge. Throughout, the analysis argues for the centrality of the family for human flourishing and, consequently, for the importance of sustaining (or reestablishing) family-oriented practices within social policy, such as more family-oriented approaches to consent to medical treatment. Where individually oriented approaches to medical decision-making accent an ethos of isolated personal autonomy family-oriented approaches acknowledge the central social and moral reality of the family. I argue that the family ought to be appreciated as more than a mere network of personal relations and individual undertakings; the family possesses a being that is social and moral such that it realizes a particular structure of human good and sustains the necessary conditions for core areas of human flourishing. Moreover, since the family exists as a nexus of face-to-face relationships, the consent of persons, including adults, to be members of a particular family, subject to its own respective account of family sovereignty, is significantly more amply demonstrated than the consent of citizens to be under the authority of a particular state. As a result, in the face of a general Western bioethical affirmation of the autonomy of individuals, as if adults and children were morally and socially isolated agents, this paper argues that social space must nevertheless be made for families to choose on behalf of their own members.


family; informed consent; medical decision-making

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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