Recently a woman in the UK known only as C won the right to effectively end her life by refusing dialysis treatment. Owen Bowcott, writing for The Guardian described it as a “highly unusual judgment,” but, in making the decision, the judge said, ““This position reflects the value that society places on personal autonomy in matters of medical treatment and the very long established right of the patient to choose to accept or refuse medical treatment from his or her doctor.”
The judge is correct; the right to refuse treatment is one of the bedrock principles of medical ethics. In most medical decisions, autonomy trumps all other considerations, including efficacy of possible treatment. In other words, you are not obligated to accept treatment simply because it will prolong your life. This is the way things work in the world of medicine, but there could be other approaches.
Given the facts of this case, it seems a suicidal person sort of “lucks out” when an unrelated medical issue arises. Unlike C, not everyone seeking death is able to find a legal way out. Those who are so physically incapacitated that they cannot possibly end their lives without help often find too many roadblocks to death to ever carry it out. Even when healthy people try to commit suicide, the rest of us are obligated to prevent it when possible. If we find someone who has taken a drug overdose, for example, we try to save him or her. If someone is trying to jump off a bridge, we try to prevent it. And if someone asks for drugs to commit suicide, only a few places in the world allow them to be prescribed.
It is clear that we do not always respect the autonomy of suicidal individuals. Even in the case of C, the judge said, “My decision that C has capacity to decide whether or not to accept dialysis does not, and should not prevent her treating doctors from continuing to seek to engage with C in an effort to persuade her of the benefits of receiving life-saving treatment in accordance with their duty to C as their patient.” The judge seems to feel that the doctors ought to continue trying to save C, even while recognizing that she has the right to refuse treatment.
Clearly, the law in this case is built around autonomy, but perhaps it shouldn’t be. Autonomy assumes a rational and unimpaired person making a fully informed decision. The judge notes that C is fully functional and has no cognitive impairments. At the same time, though, C is facing a diagnosis of breast cancer and a severely damaged self-image. It isn’t clear that she may not modify her view with a little time and, perhaps, psychotherapy.
If her mental health is impaired, she may not be fully autonomous in the first place. If she isn’t, then perhaps she needs care more than freedom. An Ethics of Care would possible guide us to respect her wishes as well as her needs. A little more time may be needed to assess whether her decision, which is not reversible, is truly the decision she wants to make. With a little time and support, she may come to believe that sparkle is still possible for her.
I also think a focus on capabilities might be relevant. An ethics focused on capabilities would try to enable her to have a fulfilling life by maximizing the abilities she still has. Care and capabilities both emerged as feminist approaches to ethics and justice. While on the surface, this may not seem to be a feminist issue, but the judge also said, “It is clear that during her life C has placed a significant premium on youth and beauty and on living a life that, in C’s words, ‘sparkles’.”
It is clear that C has operated under rather sexist values for most of her life. That is her choice, to be sure, but it might be possible to find new values. Many who have experienced crippling injuries have sought suicide only to later find their lives are valuable and meaningful even without the activities and relationships they once held dear.