Letting people choose isn’t always the same as respecting them

Jennifer Viberg, PhD Student, Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB)Sequencing the entire genome is cheaper and faster than ever. But when researchers look at people’s genetic code, they also find unexpected information in the process. Shouldn’t research participants have access to this incidental information? Especially if it is important information that could save a life if there is treatment to offer?

The personal benefits of knowing genetic information can vary from individual to individual. For one person, knowledge might just cause anxiety. For another, genetic risk information could create a sense of control in life. Since different people have different experiences, it could seem tempting to leave it for them to decide for themselves whether they want the information or not.

Offering participants in genetic research a choice to know or not to know is becoming more common. Another reason for giving a “freedom of choice” has to do with respecting people by allowing them to make choices in matters that concern them. By letting the participant choose, you acknowledge that he or she is a person with an ability to make his or her own choices.

But when researchers hand over the decision to participants they also transfer responsibility: A responsibility that could have consequences that we cannot determine today. I recently wrote an article together with colleagues at CRB about this in Bioethics. We argue that this freedom of choice could be problematic.

Looking at previous psychological research on how people respond to probabilities, it becomes clear that what they choose depends on how the choice situation is presented. People choose the “safe” outcome before taking a risk in cases where the outcome is phrased in a positive way. But they are more prone to taking a risk when the result is phrased in a negative way, despite the fact that the outcome is identical. If a participant is asked if he or she wants information that could save their life, there is a risk that they could be steered to answering “yes” without considering other important aspects, such as having to live with anxiety or subjecting themselves to medical procedures that might be unnecessary.

The benefit of incidental findings for individual participants is hard to estimate. Even for experienced and knowledgeable genetic researchers. If we know how difficult the choice situations are, even for them, and if we know how psychological processes probably will steer the participants’ choices, then it seems that it is hardly respectful to give the participants this choice.

There are good intentions behind giving participants freedom to choose, but it isn’t respectful if we can predict that the choices won’t be free and well grounded.

If you want to learn more, you find further reading on CRB’s web, and here is a link to our article: Freedom of choice about incidental findings can frustrate participants’ true preferences

Jennifer Viberg

We like real-life ethics : www.ethicsblog.crb.uu.se

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