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Keywords:

  • consent;
  • surgery;
  • local moral obligation;
  • customary obedience;
  • cultural bioethics

ABSTRACT

The process of obtaining informed consent in a teaching hospital in a developing country (e.g. Nigeria) is shaped by factors which, to the Western world, may be seen to be anti-autonomomous: autonomy being one of the pillars of an ideal informed consent. However, the mix of cultural bioethics and local moral obligation in the face of communal tradition ensures a mutually acceptable informed consent process. Paternalism is indeed encouraged by the patients who prefer to see the doctor as all-powerful and all-knowing, and this is buttressed by the cultural practice of customary obedience to those ‘above you’: either in age or social rank. The local moral obligation reassures the patients that those in authority will always look after others placed in their care without recourse to lengthy discussions or signed documentation, while the communal traditions ensure that the designated head of a family unit has the honor and sole responsibility of assenting and consenting to an operation to be carried out on a younger, or female, member of the family. Indeed it is to only a few educated patients that the informed consent process is deemed a shield against litigation by the doctors. This paper later addresses the need for physicians to update their knowledge on the process of informed consent through the attendance of biomedical ethics courses, which should highlight socio-cultural practices that may make this process different from the Western concept, but perfectly acceptable in this setting.