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Roman concept of mental capacity to make end-of-life decisions
journal contributionposted on 01.05.2007, 00:00 authored by Danuta MendelsonDanuta Mendelson
When assessing decisional competence of patients, psychiatrists have to balance the patients' right to personal autonomy, their condition and wishes against principles of medical ethics and professional discretion. This article explores the age-old legal and ethical dilemmas posed by refusal of vital medical treatment by patients and their mental capacity to make end-of-life decisions against the background of philosophical, legal and medical approaches to these issues in the time of the Younger Pliny (c62–c113 CE). Classical Roman discourse regarding mental competency and "voluntary death" formed an important theme of the vast corpus of Greco-Roman writings, which was moulded not only by legal permissibility of suicide but also by philosophical (in modern terms, moral or ethical) considerations. Indeed, the legal and ethical issues of evaluating the acceptability of end of life decisions discussed in the Letters are as pertinent today as they were 2000 years ago. We may gain valuable insights about our own methodologies and frames of reference in this area of the law and psychiatry by examining Classical Roman approaches to evaluating acceptability of death-choices as described in Pliny's Letters and the writings of some of his peers.