Was bioethics founded on historical and conceptual mistakes about medical paternalism?

Bioethics 25 (2):66-74 (2011)
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Abstract

Bioethics has a founding story in which medical paternalism, the interference with the autonomy of patients for their own clinical benefit, was an accepted ethical norm in the history of Western medical ethics and was widespread in clinical practice until bioethics changed the ethical norms and practice of medicine. In this paper I show that the founding story of bioethics misreads major texts in the history of Western medical ethics. I also show that a major source for empirical claims about the widespread practice of medical paternalism has been misread. I then show that that bioethics based on its founding story deprofessionalizes medical ethics. The result leaves the sick exposed to the predatory power of medical practitioners and healthcare organizations with only their autonomy-based rights to non-interference, expressed in contracts, to protect them. The sick are stripped of the protection afforded by a professional, fiduciary relationship of physicians to their patients. Bioethics based on its founding story reverts to the older model of a contractual relationship between the sick and medical practitioners not worthy of intellectual or moral trust (because such trust cannot be generated by what I call ‘deprofessionalizing bioethics’). On closer examination, bioethics based on its founding story, ironically, eliminates paternalism as a moral category in bioethics, thus causing bioethics to collapse on itself because it denies one of the necessary conditions for medical paternalism. Bioethics based on its founding story should be abandoned

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Laurence McCullough
Baylor College of Medicine

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