Abstract: The requirement that consent should be valid is a necessary aspect of its being required at all. We need protection against people who may have an interest in encroaching on the areas over which we have rights, and therefore in giving the impression that they have received our consent to do so. However, there are also corresponding dangers, less obvious and perhaps more sinister, in the other direction. Many policies and clinical decisions are defended by claims that apparent consent for some procedure does not or cannot meet the required standards of validity, and that such procedures cannot go ahead without valid consent. I shall argue that claims of invalidity often depend on fallacies of equivocation, and even where there is genuine invalidity this need not preclude acting according to what was apparently consented to. In such cases the result can be an undermining of the very rights that the requirement of validity is supposed to ensure, disguised as a defence of them.
Janet Radcliffe-Richards is Professor of Practical Philosophy and Distinguished Research Fellow at the Oxford Uehiro Centre. She was until 2007 Director of Bioethics in the medical school at University College London, and previously a member of the Philosophy Department of the Open University. She originally worked on metaphysics and philosophy of science, but for many years now has concentrated on the practical applications of philosophy, with books on topics such as feminism (The Sceptical Feminist, 1980), discrimination and inequality (Philosophical Problems of Equality, 1996) and the implications of Darwinian theory (Human Nature after Darwin, 2000).