Essay: A Non-Capitalist Approach to Biomedical Consent

Ask anybody about bioethics in the old days, like forty years ago, and they’ll talk all about autonomy and consent. It was all about how people didn’t have to do what you thought was good for them and how you couldn’t touch patients, even to help them, without it being some kind of battery or something. Everybody talked about all these famous examples where people were treated without wanting to, but most people only go to the doctor when they want and need to get treated. Most people these days only refuse treatment because they can’t afford it.

I’m sure a lot of them can’t afford the treatment but also don’t need it. It’s hard to argue with a doctor about that, though. If you want to feel better, stay healthy, live longer, or whatever; you’re going to listen to the doctor. You are paying the doctor to know more about it than you do. And the doctor may or may not be making money off every service you buy. It’d be good to know who makes money off what, wouldn’t it? It would also be good to know in advance exactly what everything would cost. It would be even better to be able to prepare costs.

In the early days of bioethics, it wasn’t all about costs, because most people could afford their healthcare bills. Money was a concern, of course, but people didn’t panic from fear that their life savings would be wiped out anytime they got sick. It wasn’t at the front of everyone’s mind, so when someone refused treatment, it was because they didn’t want to live longer, didn’t think the treatment worked, or something like that.

But now it’s all about costs. Can a doctor ethically prescribe you treatment knowing you can’t afford it? Can a doctor ethically not tell you about treatments you can’t afford? Should doctors help patients set up Go Fund Me accounts? How can anyone just stand by and let people die because they can’t afford insulin?

In the past, we didn’t notice how much autonomy and consent were tangled up in financial concerns. Most patients didn’t know doctors received so much money from industry. Most patients trusted their doctors, hospitals, and so on to have their best interests in mind, not to be focused on profit front and center. But things have changed, and bioethics can’t afford to have many debates that don’t deal with patients’ ability to access needed care.

So, if you are dealing with public health ethics and planning for pandemics, you might want to consider how many patients will walk around shedding viruses simply because they can’t pay for a visit to the hospital. And if people are forced into quarantine at hospitals, you might want to consider who will get the bill for that. It’s the same with vaccines. At least some people are opposed to vaccines because they think, right or wrong, that they are just being made to create more profit for pharmacy companies, clinics, and doctors. It’s just another way, they think, to get in people’s pockets.

I’m not saying that no one writing in bioethics is dealing with these topics. Great work is being done. What I’m saying is that all work in bioethics must include a discussion of economics and an expressed concern for how access to medicine can be guaranteed for everyone who needs it. You can have lots of detailed and technical disagreements over how much medicine is actually needed and what are the best ways to deliver needed medicine without bankrupting an entire country, but the focus should be on creating a society of healthy, financially secure people. That’s all anyone wants, I think, and anyone who doesn’t want it isn’t really worth my trouble.

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