It is my sense that the majority, perhaps the vast majority, of cases on which clinical ethics consultants (CECs) are asked to consult and make an ethics recommendation, there is, or would be, a general consensus on the part of the CECs about what counts as the appropriate recommendation. However, the question arises of how clinical ethics as a field should deal with issues that come up about which there is not a clear consensus, such as in cases where a basic right to have an autonomous choice respected by the patient is pitted over and against the obligation of the physician to do no harm—the traditional tension between respect for patient autonomy and beneficence/nonmaleficence. This tension or conflict often occurs in cases of alleged medical futility where the patient or the patient’s surrogate requests a treatment option the physician deems will only cause harm and no benefit to the patient. For example, consider a patient’s surrogate who insists that she will not consent to a DNR order and in fact expects the physician to perform CPR if the patient arrests. For a patient without capacity dying of metastatic disease, this directive by the surrogate presents a stark dilemma to the physician—is it a violation of the physician’s obligation to the patient to “do no harm” (nonmaleficence)? Or is respect for the patient’s wishes or her representative’s wishes so sacrosanct that the physician’s obligation to follow the patient’s wishes is paramount and outweighs the obligation to do no harm?
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