Bioethics Blogs

Stripping Addicts of Benefits – Coercion, Consent, and the Right to Benefits

The UK government has announced plans to review the possibility of stripping drug addicts, alcoholics and obese individuals of benefits if they refuse treatment for their conditions. In support of the review, a consultation paper claims that the review is intended to “. . . consider how best to support those suffering from long-term yet treatable conditions back into work or to remain in work.”

One concern that has been raised against the plans is that stripping these individuals of their benefits is unlikely to be effective in getting them to seek treatment, with the Mirror reporting one campaigner as suggesting that “(this strategy) didn’t work in the Victorian times, (and) it’s not going to work now”.

In this post, I shall consider a challenge to the lawfulness of the proposals that is based on the claim that they would coerce individuals into accepting treatment. This is in fact a challenge that Sarah Woolaston, chair of the Health Select Committee has herself raised.

 A central tenet of medical ethics holds that it is permissible to perform a medical intervention on a competent individual only if that individual has given informed consent to that intervention. Correspondingly, in the UK, patients have a long-standing right to refuse consent to medical treatment. This right is grounded by the principle of respect for autonomy, which is understood in most cases to take precedence over considerations of beneficence. This evidenced by cases in which competent individuals’ refusals of life-saving treatment have been respected, even though the treatment is ostensibly in their best interests medically speaking.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.