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Freedom to negotiate: a proposal extricating ‘capacity’ from ‘consent’

  • Liz Brosnan (a1) and Eilionóir Flynn (a1)


In this paper, we seek to radically reframe the legal construct of consent from a disability perspective. Drawing on feminist scholarship and human rights standards around ‘free and informed consent’, we apply a concept of freedom to negotiate to laws regulating both consent to sex and medical treatment – key areas in which the legal agency of people with disabilities (especially people with cognitive disabilities) is routinely denied, restricted or ignored. We set out the essential ingredients for reframing consent: namely, legal personhood, freedom to negotiate and understanding. We also outline conditions (i.e. coercion, undue influence and power imbalances) that impede valid consent. This represents a first attempt to move beyond labelling adults with certain disabilities as lacking the ‘mental capacity’ necessary to give valid consent – in order to explore in more depth particular expressions of consent or refusal and seek new validity criteria, beyond the label of ‘mental incapacity’.


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We wish to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and feedback on an earlier draft of this paper, along with the following colleagues who provided helpful insights on previous drafts: Anna Arstein-Kerslake, Tina Minkowitz, Alex Ruck-Keene, Elizabeth Kamundia, Kristijan Grdan, Maths Jesperson, Piers Gooding and Michelle Browning. Any errors or inaccuracies are the sole responsibility of the authors.



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