Consensus, clinical decision making, and unsettled cases

David M. Adams, William J. Winslade

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


The model of clinical ethics consultation (CEC) defended in the ASBH Core Competencies1 report has gained significant traction among scholars and healthcare providers. On this model, the aim of CEC is to facilitate deliberative reflection and thereby resolve conflicts and clarify value uncertainty by invoking and pursuing a process of consensus building. It is central to the model that the facilitated consensus falls within a range of allowable options, defined by societal values: prevailing legal requirements, widely endorsed organizational policies, and professional standards of practice and codes of conduct. Moreover, the model stipulates that ethics consultants must refrain from giving substantive recommendations regarding how parties to a moral disagreement in the clinic should evaluate their options. We argue that this model of CEC is incomplete, because it wrongly assumes that what counts as the proper set of allowable options among which the parties are to deliberate will itself always be clearly discernible. We illustrate this problem with a recent case on which one of us consulted-a neonate born with trisomy 18 (T18). We try to show that law, policy, and standards of practice reveal no clear answer to the question posed by the case: namely, whether forgoing gastrostomy tube feedings for a baby with T18 is allowable. We suggest there may be other kinds of cases in which it may simply be unsettled whether a given choice falls within the set of allowable options within which consensus is to be facilitated. What should an ethicist do when confronting such unsettled cases? We agree with the facilitation model that an ethicist should remain neutral among the allowable options, when it is clear what the allowable options are. But, in unsettled cases, the role of a consultant should be expanded to include a process of moral inquiry into what the allowable options should be. We end by raising the issue of whether this means an ethicist should share his or her own conclusions or views about the allowability of a given clinical option.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)310-327
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Clinical Ethics
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Medicine


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