Clinical Ethics

Consent Without Alternatives

Written by Ben Davies and Joshua Parker

“COVID-19: Do not resuscitate orders might have been put in place without consent, watchdog says”. This recent headline followed an investigation by the Care Quality Commission into Do Not Attempt Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation (DNACPR) decisions early in the pandemic. In a recent post, Dominic Wilkinson highlights two misconceptions in the coverage of this report, one of which is the ‘consent misconception’.

Dominic’s view is that “there is no ethical requirement…to seek the agreement of patients not to offer or provide a treatment” which a medical professional judges inappropriate. Of course, his position is not that consultation and discussion around CPR is inappropriate, only that consent is not necessary. This is the standard view on consent in this context and, due in part to the Tracey judgment, reflects doctors’ practice. Thus, an important distinction emerges between consenting to the withholding of some treatment, and discussion of that decision. Doctors may be ethically required to discuss a decision without also having an obligation to seek the patient’s consent. The absence of consent, then, does not signal that the DNACPR was unethical, whereas a failure to consult probably will.

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Refusal Redux. Revisiting Debate About Adolescent Refusal of Treatment.

by Prof Dominic Wilkinson @Neonatalethics

Last month, in an emergency hearing, the High court in London heard a case that characterises a familiar problem in medical ethics. A 15 year old adolescent (known as ‘X’) with a long-standing medical condition, Sickle Cell disease, had a very low blood count and required an urgent blood transfusion. However, X is a Jehovah’s Witness and did not wish to receive blood as it was contrary to her religious beliefs. X’s doctors believed that she was at risk of very serious health consequences without a blood transfusion (a stroke, or even death).

Of no great surprise to anyone, the court authorised the emergency blood transfusion for X. Although X was “mature and wise beyond her years”, and judged to be ‘Gillick competent’ (see below), the judge made the decision in her best interests.

That decision is consistent with many previous cases that have come to the courts in the UK and overseas (see here, here, here )[1]. It is very similar to the case in Ian McEwan’s novel and film “The Children Act” (the book, had been based on real cases before the courts). The courts, in the UK at least, have always decided to over-rule under-eighteens who wish to refuse potentially life-saving treatment. Once the teenager reaches the age of eighteen, the decision is different, however. At that point, if they are judged to have “capacity”, (ie they have the ability to use, understand, and communicate the information necessary for a decision)  they can refuse even if the treatment would certainly save their life.

Although the decision is unsurprising, the judge made a comment implying that future cases might not always reach the same conclusion. X’s lawyer argued that the traditional legal approach may be “in need of urgent re-analysis and review”, and the judge appeared to agree that these arguments needed careful consideration (not possible acutely given the urgency of X’s case).

Should the ethical and legal approach to adolescents who refuse treatment change?

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Antenatal Care During The COVID-19 Pandemic: Couples As Dyads

Written by Rebecca Brown

 

During the pandemic, many healthcare services have been reduced. One instance of this is the antenatal care of expectant mothers. Ordinarily, partners of pregnant women are permitted to attend appointments. This includes the 12 week scan: typically the first opportunity expectant parents get to see the developing foetus, to discover whether it has a heartbeat and is growing in the right place. This can be very exciting and, if there’s bad news, devastating. It also includes scans in mid pregnancy and (for first-time mothers) at 36 weeks, as well as the entirety of labour.

During the pandemic, many healthcare providers have restricted attendance at antenatal appointments as well as labour and postnatal care. Even when lockdown restrictions were eased, with pubs, zoos and swimming pools re-opening and diners in England being encouraged to Eat Out to Help Out, some hospitals continued to exclude partners from all antenatal appointments and all but the final stage of labour, requiring them to leave shortly after birth. This included cases where mother and newborn had to remain on wards for days following delivery. With covid cases rising, it seems likely that partners will once again be absent from much antenatal, labour, and postnatal care across the country. Continue reading

The Duty To Ignore Covid-19

By Charles Foster

This is a plea for a self-denying ordinance on the part of philosophers. Ignore Covid-19. It was important that you said what you have said about it, but the job is done. There is nothing more to say. And there are great dangers in continuing to comment. It gives the impression that there is only one issue in the world. But there are many others, and they need your attention. Just as cancer patients were left untreated because Covid closed hospitals, so important philosophical problems are left unaddressed, or viewed only through the distorting lens of Covid. Continue reading

Conscience Rights or Conscience Wrongs?: Debating Conscientious Objection in Healthcare

Written by: David Albert JonesAnscombe Bioethics Centre

& Alberto GiubiliniOxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities, University of Oxford

 

For the purpose of this debate (held online on 12 October 2020), Alberto Giubilini and David Albert Jones each adopted a position on conscientious objection (CO) contrary to the one that he in fact holds. David A. Jones, who is a defender of a right to conscientious objection in healthcare, made the case against it. Alberto Giubilini, who is against a right to conscientious objection in healthcare, made the case in favour of it. What follows is an evaluation by each of the arguments of the other in relation to their strengths and how they were presented. Continue reading

Must Clinical Ethics Committees Involve Patients or Families in their Meetings?

By Dominic Wilkinson @Neonatalethics and Michael Dunn @ethical_mikey

In a high court case reported last week, a judge strongly criticised a London hospital’s clinical ethics committee (CEC). The case related to disputed treatment for a gravely ill nine-year old child. There had been a breakdown in the relationship between the clinical team and the child’s parents. Prior to going to court, the clinicians had referred the case to the CEC. The committee had heard evidence from the medical professionals involved, and apparently reached consensus that further invasive life prolonging treatments were not in the child’s best interests. However, the committee had not involved the parents in the meeting. The judge found this omission striking and regrettable. She noted

“a lack of involvement by patients and/or their families is itself an issue of medical ethics and I am most surprised that there is not guidance in place to ensure their involvement and/or participation. … the absence of any prior consultation or participation, cannot be good practice and should generally be unacceptable.”
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We’re All Vitalists Now

By Charles Foster

It has been a terrible few months for moral philosophers – and for utilitarians in particular. Their relevance to public discourse has never been greater, but never have their analyses been so humiliatingly sidelined by policy makers across the world. The world’s governments are all, it seems, ruled by a rather crude vitalism. Livelihoods and freedoms give way easily to a statistically small risk of individual death.

That might or might not be the morally right result. I’m not considering here the appropriateness of any government measures, and simply note that whatever one says about the UK Government’s response, it has been supremely successful in generating fear. Presumably that was its intention. The fear in the eyes above the masks is mainly an atavistic terror of personal extinction – a fear unmitigated by rational risk assessment. There is also a genuine fear for others (and the crisis has shown humans at their most splendidly altruistic and communitarian as well). But we really don’t have much ballast.

The fear is likely to endure long after the virus itself has receded. Even if we eventually pluck up the courage to hug our friends or go to the theatre, the fear has shown us what we’re really like, and the unflattering picture will be hard to forget.

I wonder what this new view of ourselves will mean for some of the big debates in ethics and law? The obvious examples are euthanasia and assisted suicide. Continue reading

Forced Medical Feeding

By Roger Crisp

At a recent New St Cross Special Ethics Seminar Prof. Noam Zohar of the Dept. of Philosophy, Bar Ilan University and a member of Israel’s National Bioethics Council, spoke on ‘Debating Forced Medical Feeding: A Critical Examination of Israeli Responses to Hunger Strikes’. Continue reading

Coronavirus: Dark Clouds, But Some Silver Linings?

By Charles Foster

Cross posted from The Conversation

To be clear, and in the hope of heading off some trolls, two observations. First: of course I don’t welcome the epidemic. It will cause death, worry, inconvenience and great physical and economic suffering. Lives and livelihoods will be destroyed. The burden will fall disproportionately on the old, the weak and the poor.

And second: these suggestions are rather trite. They should be obvious to reasonably reflective people of average moral sensibility.

That said, here goes:

1. It will make us realise that national boundaries are artificial

The virus doesn’t carry a passport or recognise frontiers. The only way of stopping its spread would be to shut borders wholly, and not even the most rabid nationalists advocate that. It would mean declaring that nations were prisons, with no one coming in or out – or at least not coming back once they’d left. In a world where we too casually assume that frontiers are significant, it doesn’t do any harm to be reminded of the basic fact that humans occupy an indivisible world.

Cooperation between nations is essential to combating the epidemic. That cooperation is likely to undermine nationalist rhetoric.

2. It will make us realise that people are not islands

The atomistic billiard-ball model of the person – a model that dominates political and ethical thinking in the west – is biologically ludicrous and sociologically unsustainable. Our individual boundaries are porous. We bleed into one another and infect one another with both ills and joys. Infectious disease is a salutary reminder of our interconnectedness. It might help us to recover a sense of society.

3. It may encourage a proper sort of localism

Internationalism may be boosted. I hope so. But if we’re all locked up with one another in local quarantine, we might get to know the neighbours and the family members we’ve always ignored. We might distribute ourselves less widely, and so be more present to the people around us.

We might even find out that our local woods are more beautiful than foreign beaches, and that local farmers grow better and cheaper food than that which is shipped (with the associated harm to the climate) across the globe.

4. It may encourage altruism

Exigencies tend to bring out the best and the worst in us. An epidemic may engender and foster altruistic heroes.

5. It may remind us of some neglected constituencies

Mortality and serious illness are far higher among the old, the very young, and those suffering from other diseases. We tend to think about – and legislate for – the healthy and robust. The epidemic should remind us that they are not the only stakeholders.

6. It may make future epidemics less likely

The lessons learned from the coronavirus epidemic will pay dividends in the future. We will be more realistic about the dangers of viruses crossing the barriers between species. The whole notion of public health (a Cinderella speciality in medicine in most jurisdictions) has been rehabilitated. It is plain that private healthcare can’t be the whole answer. Much has been learned about the containment and mitigation of infectious disease. There are strenuous competitive and cooperative efforts afoot to develop a vaccine, and vaccines against future viral challenges are likely to be developed faster as a result.

7. It might make us more realistic about medicine

Medicine is not omnipotent. Recognising this might make us more aware of our vulnerabilities. The consequences of that are difficult to predict, but living in the world as it really is, rather than in an illusory world, is probably a good thing. And recognising our own vulnerability might make us more humble and less presumptuous.

8. Wildlife may benefit

China has announced a permanent ban on trade in and consumption of wildlife. That in itself is hugely significant from a conservation, an animal welfare, and a human health perspective. Hopefully other nations will follow suit.

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Lifesaving Treatment for Babies Born at 22 weeks Doesn’t Mean Abortion Law Should Change.

Recommendation for life support from 22 weeks.
Kristina Bessolova/Shutterstock

Dominic Wilkinson, University of Oxford

When new guidance relating to the outcome and medical care of babies born extremely prematurely was recently released, it led some to call for UK abortion law to be revised.

This was because one of the new recommendations from the British Association of Perinatal Medicine is that it is sometimes appropriate to provide resuscitation and active medical treatment for babies born at 22 weeks gestation (four and a half months before their due date). This is a week earlier than was recommended in the last version of the framework, published in 2008.

The argument goes that the new guidance creates a “contradiction in British law” because extremely premature infants can now be resuscitated before the point in pregnancy where abortion law changes.
A spokesperson for campaign group Right to Life UK said: “In one room of a hospital, doctors could be working to save a baby born alive before 24 weeks whilst in another room a doctor could perform an abortion which would end the life of a baby at the same age. Surely this contradiction needs to end?” Continue reading

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