Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts



Major Professor

Glenn Graber, PhD

Committee Members

John Hardwig, PhD, Richard Aquila, PhD


This thesis is presented for a Master of Arts and Science Degree at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, from the College of Liberal Arts, Department of Philosophy, with a concentration in medical ethics.

The thesis's argument assumes that rules of ethics or morality should be rules and guidelines of uniformity and therefore universal in nature and scope. In that assumption, the thesis adheres to the present problematic state of ethics, and in particular, medical ethics. In response to that state it asks: without imprint from religious morality, upon what foundation can we design a system for medical ethics? In particular, does the rule of law and interpretation of our Federal Constitutional rights in the United States of America offer any guidance for a foundation of medical ethics?

Still more specifically, the issues of concern here will be the following. First this thesis will explore the connection between the medical term .autonomy. and the legal terms .privacy. and .liberty.. Secondly, the thesis will focus on an examination of the nature of medical autonomy which the Supreme Court of the United States reached in the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. Is the interpretation of the Constitution of the United States of America, adopted in that decision, an interpretation that defines such rights as the Constitutional right of privacy, a method that can be depended upon for guidance or foundational support for a right of medical autonomy? If not, what conclusions can be reached by this analysis?

As the thesis will conclude, while medical autonomy and what the courts call "privacy" and "liberty" when discussing medical cases appear to be the same thing, interpretation of the Constitution of the United States of America does not provide us with a relevant tool for guidance with respect to the ethics of medical autonomy. The standard interpretation of the Roe v. Wade decision as concerning a national, and therefore uniform right of privacy in making medical decisions, akin to medical definitions of autonomy, was destroyed by the United States Supreme Court decision in the cases known as Washington/Vacco.

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