Further Reflections: Surrogate Decisionmaking When Significant Mental Capacities are Retained

Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 30 (1):192-198 (2021)
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Mackenzie Graham has made an important contribution to the literature on decisionmaking for patients with disorders of consciousness. He argues, and I agree, that decisions for unresponsive patients who are known to retain some degree of covert awareness ought to focus on current interests, since such patients likely retain the kinds of mental capacities that in ordinary life command our current respect and attention. If he is right, then it is not appropriate to make decisions for such patients by appealing to the values they had in the past, either the values expressed in an advance directive or the values recalled by a surrogate. There are two things I wish to add to the discussion. My first point is somewhat critical, for although I agree with his general conclusion about how, ideally, such decisions should be approached, I remain skeptical about whether his conclusion offers decisionmakers real practical help. The problem with these cases is that the evidence we have about the nature of the patient’s current interests is minimal or nonexistent. However—and this is important—Graham’s conclusion will be extremely relevant if in the future, our ability to communicate with such patients improves, as I hope it will. This leads to my second point. Graham’s conclusion illustrates a more general problem with our standard framework for decisionmaking for previously competent patients, a problem that has not been adequately recognized. So, in what follows, I explain the problem I see and offer some brief thoughts about solutions.

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Jennifer Hawkins
Duke University


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