Challenging research on human subjects: justice and uncompensated harms

Ethical challenges to certain aspects of research on human subjects are not uncommon; examples include challenges to first-in-human trials (Chapman in J Clin Res Bioethics 2(4):1–8, 2011), certain placebo controlled trials (Anderson in J Med Philos 31:65–81, 2006; Anderson and Kimmelman in Kennedy Inst Ethics J 20(1):75–98, 2010) and ‘‘sham’’ surgery (Macklin in N Engl J Med 341:992–996, 1999). To date, however, there are few challenges to research when the subjects are competent and the research is more than minimal risk with no promise of direct benefit. The principal reason given for allowing research that is more than minimal risk without benefit is that we should respect the autonomy of competent subjects. I argue that though the moral intuitions informing respect for autonomy are sound, there is another set of intuitions regarding what we take to be just treatment of another when one agent knowingly causes or allows suffering on another agent. I argue that concerns generated by commutative justice serve as limitations on permissible research. I highlight our intuitions informing this notion of justice by appealing to work done on theodicy; what counts as a morally sufficient reason for God to allow suffering in humans is applicable also to the researcher-subject relationship. I conclude that all human subjects who are exposed to more than minimal risk research should enjoy the same actual protections (e.g., subpart D) as those given subjects who cannot consent.

Main Author: Napier, Stephen
Language: English
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