Can infrastructure for biobank research make ethical notions obsolete?

January 2, 2012

In a comment to what I posted earlier about the decision of the Swedish Data Inspection Board to stop LifeGene, Åke Thörn asks what I mean by saying that

  • “LifeGene represents a new reality in the making.”

Since the question has deep interest, I want to answer it here, in a new post. I will use a simile to explain my intended meaning.

Suppose that rather than discussing biobank ethics, we were playing a form of chess with the strange feature that the chessboard sometimes changes. Squares turn into circles. Or the entire chessboard turns into a rhomb.

These changes of the chessboard make the old rules obsolete. What is “straight” and what is “diagonal” on a chessboard with the shape of a rhomb? The rules need to be reconsidered!

Research ethics and ethical review can be compared to games played on chessboards that sometimes change and require that rules and basic notions are reconsidered. What I meant in my previous post was that LifeGene represents such a basic change of the research ethical chessboard.

How should the “aim” of biobank infrastructure be described, given that infrastructure is not a research project with the aims of individual biobank projects? Do people turn into “research participants” when their ten-year old blood samples are used in new studies?

We cannot always cherish old ethical notions – as if there were no such things as TIME and CHANGE. We sometimes need to rethink rules and basic notions.

I hope these considerations explain my understanding of ethics as sensitive to changing times, and my notion of LifeGene as a “new reality.”

Pär Segerdahl

We challenge habits of thought : the Ethics Blog


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