February 25, 2024

Is informed consent on the skids?

Questions are being asked about the sacrasanct value of informed consent.

Informed consent is one of the foundations of bioethical discourse. Bureaucrats have forced doctors and researchers to fill out endless forms in the belief that informed consent will enhance patients’ autonomy.

However, questions are being asked about whether this business of informed consent is really working. In an early online article in the Journal of Medical Ethics, Neil Levy, the Australian editor of another journal, Neuroethics, argues that bioethicists need to rethink informed consent.

Why? Because the lesson of all of modern psychology and of post-modern philosophy is that our rationality is terribly flawed. We are blind to the future consequences of our actions; we are not objective in assessing claims that touch us personally;  we overestimate the effects of setbacks on our well-being; we are unreliable in estimating how bad or how good events made us feel. In short, human reasoning is subject to many fallibilities. it seems utterly naïve to think that Yes always means Yes and No always means No. So Levy declares that doctors need to return to paternalism, to some extent:

“patient autonomy is best promoted by constraining the informed consent procedure. By limiting the degree of freedom patients have to choose, the good that informed consent is supposed to protect can be promoted…

“Though it is unacceptable, on liberal grounds, to promote particular conceptions of the good or interfere with the pursuit of any reasonable conception, there may be good grounds for some degree of paternalistic interference with individual choice when this interference can reasonably be expected to promote the pursuit of the good life by that very individual’s own lights. 

Somewhat surprisingly, Arthur Caplan, of the University of Pennsylvania, probably the best-known bioethicist in the US, agrees with Levy. In a companion article, he says:

“autonomy is fundamentally inadequate in healthcare settings and requires supplementation by experience-based paternalism on the part of doctors and healthcare providers…

“A large number of studies have shown that huge percentages of people who give their informed consent to treatment or to their involvement in research do not really understand what they have chosen. Autonomy lives with hope and hope, in the form of the therapeutic misconception, often trumps autonomy.”

Questioning informed consent shakes a pillar of modern bioethics and the call for more benevolent paternalism is sure to face stiff opposition. After all, this is more or less what pro-life groups are also arguing about abortion – that women need to be informed by seeing ultrasounds of the unborn baby or images of aborted foetuses and so on.

Michael Cook
informed consent