Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics

Special Section: Beyond Autonomy

Rights, Duties, and Limits of Autonomy

H.E. Emsona1

a1 professor of Pathology, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Canada

In the language of secular bioethics, autonomy is always accorded first place in the hierarchy of values that has come to be referred to as the “Georgetown mantra” A dictionary definition of mantra is “a verbal spell, ritualistic incantation, or mystic formula used devotionally,” and the value placed upon autonomy is largely of this nature: uncritical and uncriticised. That there should be and are limits to autonomy is obvious, but these boundaries are undefined, little discussed, and mostly unexplored. To use another metaphor, our emphasis on autonomy is an index of how far the pendulum has swung in an understandable and partly justifiable reaction from, earlier paternalism; has this swing approached its proper limit, and should we be seeking a less extreme and more balanced assessment of autonomy as a bioethical value?