Autonomy and the Unintended Legal Consequences of Emerging Neurotherapies

Neuroethics, 2011

25 Pages Posted: 9 Apr 2011

See all articles by Jennifer A. Chandler

Jennifer A. Chandler

University of Ottawa - Common Law Section

Date Written: April 8, 2011


One of the ethical issues that has been raised recently regarding emerging neurotherapies, is that people will be coerced explicitly or implicitly in the workplace or in schools to take cognitive enhancing drugs.

This article builds on this discussion by showing how the law may pressure people to adopt emerging neurotherapies. It focuses on a range of private law doctrines that, unlike the criminal law, do not come up very often in neuroethical discussions. Three doctrines - the doctrine of mitigation, the standard of care in negligence, and child custody determinations in family law – are addressed to show how the law may pressure people to consent to treatment by offering a choice between accepting medical treatment and suffering a legal disadvantage. The doctrines considered in this article apply indirect pressure to submit to treatment, unlike court-ordered medical treatment, which applies direct pressure and is not addressed here.

The outcome of this discussion is to show that there is a greater range of social pressures that may encourage the uptake of novel neurotherapies than one might initially think. Once treatments that were developed and offered with therapeutic benefits in mind become available, their existence gives rise to unintended legal consequences. This certainly does not mean we should cease developing new therapies that may be of tremendous benefit to patients, but it does raise some questions for physicians and for legal policy-makers. How should physicians, who are required by medical ethical principles to obtain valid consent to treatment, react to a patient’s reluctant consent that is driven by legal pressure? From the legal policy perspective, are our legal doctrines satisfactory or should they be changed because, for example, they unduly promote the collective interest over individual freedom to reject medical treatment or because they channel us toward economically efficient treatments to the detriment of more costly but potentially superior approaches of dealing with behavioural problems?

Keywords: Neuroethics, Biomedical Ethics, Law, Autonomy, Consent to medical treatment, Neurotherapies

Suggested Citation

Chandler, Jennifer A., Autonomy and the Unintended Legal Consequences of Emerging Neurotherapies (April 8, 2011). Neuroethics, 2011, Available at SSRN:

Jennifer A. Chandler (Contact Author)

University of Ottawa - Common Law Section ( email )

57 Louis Pasteur Street
Ottawa, K1N 6N5
613-562-5800 ext. 3286 (Phone)
613-562-5124 (Fax)

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