Let me introduce a topic that will be recurrent on this blog! It is the question whether research ethics and the practices of ethical review can give rise to their own ethical problems. Do we create new ethical problems while we handle old ones?

Research ethics developed in a different situation than our present one. The starting-point was inhuman: terrible experiments with prisoners in concentration camps during World War II. Thereafter, a series of research scandals where research subjects were harmed in different parts of the world. Simplifying somewhat, research ethics developed to protect people from being forced into harmful research. One such ethical protection was the demand that people cannot be used as research subjects if they haven’t been properly informed about the project, about its possible risks, and have given their consent. Another protection was a legislated ethical review apparatus that can reject ethically problematic research proposals.

Ethical review and information and consent procedures are integral parts of contemporary medical research. Thereby, however, they change the situation for the research ethics of today. As a result of its success, research ethics may create its own ethical problems! If the previous threat primarily was injustices and acts of cruelty towards research subjects, new threats appear on the ethically regulated horizon. In a number of cases, one can ask if research subjects are overprotected against their own interest.

Pregnant women and children can be vulnerable and are therefore regularly excluded from clinical research. It may seem comforting to know that these groups are safe from possibly harmful research. The result of the well-intentioned protection, however, is that these groups are subjected to possibly harmful medical treatments as patients. We don’t know how treatments that are effective on non-pregnant adults work on children and pregnant women, nor the dosage. Vulnerable groups are protected as research subjects, but as a result of that protection they are put to risk as patients. Clearly, new ethical problems arise here because of the way we handle the old ones!

I’m not claiming that the old problems have disappeared. Just read The Independent (Monday, 14 November 2011): “Without consent: how drug companies exploit Indian guinea pigs.” But perhaps we have become a little too habituated to the rhetoric of victimizing research, if we fail to see and address the questions that arise as a result of the present ethical regulation and practice. If research ethics is not open to unforeseen ethical problems related to its own role in contemporary research, I believe it risks becoming self-sufficient and ideological.

We discussed these self-critical ethical questions last year at the conference, “Is Medical Ethics Really in the Best Interest of the Patient?” Conference articles were published in the April issue of JIM, 2011. I can inform you that several related articles from CRB are in the pipeline. I’ll reflect on them as they are published.

Pär Segerdahl

We think about bioethics : www.ethicsblog.crb.uu.se