Towards a Concept of Embodied Autonomy: In what ways can a Patient’s Body contribute to the Autonomy of Medical Decisions?

Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy 26 (3):451-463 (2023)
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“Bodily autonomy” has received significant attention in bioethics, medical ethics, and medical law in terms of the general inviolability of a patient’s bodily sovereignty and the rights of patients to make choices (e.g., reproductive choices) that concern their own body. However, the role of the body in terms of how it can or does contribute to a patient’s capacity for, or exercises of their autonomy in clinical decision-making situations has not been explicitly addressed. The approach to autonomy in this paper is aligned with traditional theories that conceive autonomy in terms of an individual’s capacities for, and exercises of rational reflection. However, at the same time, this paper extends these accounts by arguing that autonomy is, in part, embodied. Specifically, by drawing on phenomenological conceptions of the experience of autonomy, we argue that, in principle, the body is a necessary component of the capacity for autonomy. Secondly, through the presentation of two different cases, we highlight ways in which a patient’s body can contribute to the autonomy of treatment choices. Ultimately, we hope to encourage others to explore additional conditions under which a concept of embodied autonomy should be employed in medical decision making, how its underlying principles might be operationalised in clinical situations, and its consequences for approaches to patient autonomy in healthcare practice, policy, and law.

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Jonathan Lewis
University of Manchester


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