Responsibility and the limits of patient choice

Bioethics 34 (5):459-466 (2020)
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Patients are generally assumed to have the right to choices about treatment, including the right to refuse treatment, which is constrained by considerations of cost‐effectiveness. Independently, many people support the idea that patients who are responsible for their ill health should incur penalties that non‐responsible patients do not face. Surprisingly, these two areas have not received much joint attention. This paper considers whether restricting the scope of responsibility to pre‐treatment decisions can be justified, or whether a demand to hold people responsible for 'usual suspect' choices such as smoking or failure to exercise commits us to also holding people responsible for their treatment choices. I argue that there is no good reason to support this restriction: those who advocate responsibility for (some) pre‐treatment choices should also advocate responsibility for (some) treatment choices. However, I also note that, as with pre‐treatment choices, patients may sometimes have reason to choose in ways that do not optimize their health. As such, I also consider a process, based on the idea of public reasons, for deciding which treatment choices patients cannot legitimately be held responsible for, along with a method for considering proposed changes to this category.
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