Competence in Plain English

Hastings Center Report 46 (6):inside back cover-inside back co (2016)
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Like many other bioethicists, I often give talks on clinical topics that may touch on the patient's right of autonomy with regard to medical treatment and, from there, may move to questions about whether said patient has the capacity to exercise said right. When I get to that subject, I might ask, “Is this person competent to refuse treatment?” A stunned silence falls over the room, until finally a hand shoots up. “‘Competent’ is a legal term,” I am instructed. “Don't you mean to ask whether he has the capacity to make decisions for himself?” The tone suggests that I'm being helped to make a very important distinction. But it's not a very important distinction; and it's misleading to boot.



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Tom Tomlinson
Michigan State University

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