Autonomy is such a cherished concept in ethics that I hardly dare to write about it. The fact that the concept cherishes the individual does not make my task any easier. The slightest error in my use of the term, and I risk being identified as an enemy perhaps not of the people but of the individual!

In ethics, autonomy means personal autonomy: individuals’ ability to govern their own lives. This ability is constantly at risk of being undermined. It is undermined if others unduly influence your decisions, if they control you. It is also undermined if you are not sufficiently well informed and rational. For example, if your decisions are based on false or contradictory information, or if your decisions result from compulsions or weakness of the will. It is your faculty of reason that should govern your life!

In an article in BMC Medical Ethics, Amal Matar, who has a PhD at CRB, discusses decision-making situations in healthcare where this individual-centered concept of autonomy seems less useful. It is about decisions made not by individuals alone, but by people together: by couples planning to become parents.

A couple planning a pregnancy together is expected to make joint decisions. Maybe about genetic tests and measures to be taken if the child risks developing a genetic disease. Here, as always, the healthcare staff is responsible for protecting the patients’ autonomy. However, how is this feasible if the decision is not made by individuals but jointly by a couple?

Personal autonomy is an idealized concept. No man is an island, it is said. This is especially evident when a couple is planning a life together. If a partner begins to emphasize his or her personal autonomy, the relationship probably is about to disintegrate. An attempt to correct the lack of realism in the idealized concept has been to develop ideas about relational autonomy. These ideas emphasize how individuals who govern their lives are essentially related to others. However, as you can probably hear, relational autonomy remains tied to the individual. Amal Matar therefore finds it urgent to take a further step towards realism concerning joint decisions made by couples.

Can we talk about autonomy not only at the level of the individual, but also at the level of the couple? Can a couple planning a pregnancy together govern their life by making decisions that are autonomous not only for each one of them individually, but also for them together as a couple? This is Amal Matar’s question.

Inspired by how linguistic meaning is conceptualized in linguistic theory as existing not only at the level of the word, but also at the level of the sentence (where words are joined together), Amal Matar proposes a new concept of couple autonomy. She suggests that couples can make joint decisions that are autonomous at both the individual and the couple’s level.

She proposes a three-step definition of couple autonomy. First, both partners must be individually autonomous. Then, the decision must be reached via a communicative process that meets a number of criteria (no partner dominates, sufficient time is given, the decision is unanimous). Finally, the definition allows one partner to autonomously transfer aspects of the decision to the other partner.

The purpose of the definition is not a philosophical revolution in ethics. The purpose is practical. Amal Matar wants to help couples and healthcare professionals to speak realistically about autonomy when the decision is a couple’s joint decision. Pretending that separate individuals make decisions in parallel makes it difficult to realistically assess and support the decision-making process, which is about interaction.

Amal Matar concludes the article, written together with Anna T. Höglund, Pär Segerdahl and Ulrik Kihlbom, with describing two cases. The cases show concretely how her definition can help healthcare professionals to assess and support autonomous decision-making at the level of the couple. In one case, the couple’s autonomy is undermined, in the other case, probably not.

Read the article as an example of how we sometimes need to modify cherished concepts to enable a realistic use of them. 

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Matar, A., Höglund, A.T., Segerdahl, P. and Kihlbom, U. Autonomous decisions by couples in reproductive care. BMC Med Ethics 21, 30 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12910-020-00470-w

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