I was recently surprised to read in the New York Times that a woman had undergone a cesarean section despite her refusal to consent to the procedure. The details of the case are not entirely clear from the article, so I do not want what follows to be understood as a specific comment on this case. However, the source of my surprise was my assumption that the ethics of refusal of consent were not in dispute. The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology has taken a clear position on this: it is not permissible to perform surgery on a patient with decisional capacity without her consent. ACOG’s committee opinion, “Maternal Decision Making, Ethics, and the Law,” strongly discourages even attempting to seek a court order for treatment when a pregnant woman refuses cesarean section, and concludes with the following statement:
Pregnant women's autonomous decisions should be respected. Concerns about the impact of maternal decisions on fetal well-being should be discussed in the context of medical evidence and understood within the context of each woman's broad social network, cultural beliefs, and values. In the absence of extraordinary circumstances, circumstances that, in fact, the Committee on Ethics cannot currently imagine, judicial authority should not be used to implement treatment regimens aimed at protecting the fetus, for such actions violate the pregnant woman's autonomy.
This committee opinion gives six strong and compelling arguments for these conclusions, and I will not repeat them here, but I encourage readers to review them. What I would like to now focus on is the thinking that may lead some physicians to believe it is ethically permissible to override a patient’s autonomous choice.
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