I have probably done several hundred clinical ethics consultations since I began doing them in the early 90’s. Though I have had some second thoughts about some of the recommendations I have made, by and large, I have usually been confident that they represented viable moral options, given the range of limited, mostly bad options that were available. Thus, I rarely if ever thought of myself as anything but fully supportive of the recommendations made in ethics consultation. That is, until a few months ago when I heard about a case from another ethics consultant at another location where the right ethical recommendation seemed apparent, yet somewhat problematic. The case shows the almost boundless, and at times problematic, latitude of the negative right to refuse treatment and to be left alone, even when others may be negatively affected by the decision. I thought the general fact pattern of this case would be worth discussing in this forum.
The case involved a 40 year-old woman with full capacity who was near full term with twins. She was showing signs of pre-eclampsia, a condition “when a pregnant woman develops high blood pressure and protein in the urine after the 20th week (late 2nd or 3rd trimester) of pregnancy.” (National Library of Medicine) When this condition occurs, it is important to get the babies out as soon as possible; otherwise, both the mother and babies would be at risk of dying. So labor was induced and she was being prepared for delivery. But given that she was having twins there was the possibility of excess bleeding from hemorrhaging and other complications, so the patient was informed that a blood transfusion might be necessary. As it turns out based on her religious beliefs she stated she did not wish to be transfused with blood products and that she understood the consequence: she could possibly die. Her babies would in all likelihood be saved. Should the fact that two babies will not have a mother be counted as ethical considerations against respecting her right to autonomy? Given our current ethical environment, a patient with capacity has a right to refuse any and all medical treatments and interventions. Are there ever countervailing reasons to not honor a patient’s autonomous wishes in such a situation? Let’s proceed with the general facts of this case, as it gets even more complex.
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