Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

Joanne Waugh, Ph.D.

Co-Major Professor

Hugh LaFollette, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Benjamin Goldberg, Ph.D.

Committee Member

William Goodwin, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Alexander Levine, Ph.D.


bioethics, consent, feminism, healthcare


In this project, I argue that the conventional view of personal autonomy that is operational in contemporary American culture, bioethics and medical practice places undue emphasis on individualism and a limited range of personal qualities and attributes (such as self-sufficiency). Instead, I argue in favor of a relational approach to autonomy which recognizes that each person that exists has certain minimal connections or relations to others, and these connections/relations are identity-forming. Unfortunately, current medical practices have tended to overemphasize individuality and choice (consistent with the conventional view) while minimizing or excluding these relational aspects. As a result, informed consent and patient choice have taken the place of a more robust, relational sense of autonomy in these contexts. But this approach fails to appreciate the ways that illness, uncertainty, and suffering may threaten identity and make it more difficult to meaningfully exercise autonomy—especially when construed in such narrow terms. Through an exploration of the nature of suffering and its effects on the person, I argue that to effectively treat ailments and alleviate suffering, patients must be cared for in ways that respect and restore identity, which also promotes autonomy. This kind of respect derives in part from acknowledging and nurturing relationality, especially in medical decision-making contexts.