Safeguarding Vulnerable Autonomy? Situational Vulnerability, The Inherent Jurisdiction and Insights from Feminist Philosophy

Medical Law Review 29 (2):306-336 (2021)
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The High Court continues to exercise its inherent jurisdiction to make declarations about interventions into the lives of situationally vulnerable adults with mental capacity. In light of protective responses of health care providers and the courts to decision-making situations involving capacitous vulnerable adults, this paper has two aims. The first is diagnostic. The second is normative. The first aim is to identify the harms to a capacitous vulnerable adult’s autonomy that arise on the basis of the characterisation of situational vulnerability and autonomy as fundamentally opposed concepts or the failure to adequately acknowledge the conceptual relationship between them at common law. The second part of this aim is to draw upon developments in analytic feminist philosophy to illustrate how standard approaches to autonomy are ill-equipped to capture the autonomy issues of capacitous vulnerable adults when their decisions regarding care and treatment are at stake. The second (normative) aim is to develop an account of self-authorised, intersubjective autonomy on the basis of analytic feminist insights into the relational practices of recognition. This account not only attempts to capture the autonomy of capacitous vulnerable adults and account for the necessary harms to their autonomy that arise from standard common law responses to their situational vulnerability, it is also predicated on the distinctions between mental capacity, the satisfaction of conditions for informed consent and the exercise of autonomy, meaning that it is better placed to fulfil the primary aim of the inherent jurisdiction – to facilitate the autonomy of vulnerable adults with capacity.

Author's Profile

Jonathan Lewis
University of Manchester


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