The Ethical Structure Behind Human Experimentation

3353 words - 13 pages

The Ethical Structure Behind Human Experimentation

The history of medical research in the twentieth century provides abundant evidence which shows how easy it is to exploit individuals, especially the sick, the weak, and the vulnerable, when the only moral guide for science is a naive utilitarian dedication to the greatest good for the greatest number. Locally administered internal review boards were thought to be a solution to the need for ethical safeguards to protect the human guinea pig. However, with problems surrounding informed consent, the differentiation between experimentation and treatment, and the new advances within medicine, internal review boards were found to be inadequate for the job. This led to the establishment of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission by President Bill Clinton in the hopes of setting clear ethical standards for human research.

Examples of unethical human research cases

The dark history of human experimentation began with the clarification between experimentation and treatment. The larger public began to notice experimenters ethical neglect for their subjects in the early 1960s. Those charged with administering research funding took note of the public furor generated by the exposure of gross abuses in medical research. These included uncontrolled promotional distribution of thalidomide throughout the United States, labeled as an experimental drug; the administration of cancer cells to senile and debilitated patients at the Brooklyn Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital; and the uncontrolled distribution of LSD to children at Harvard Medical Center through Professors Alpert and Leary. Most important was Henry Beechers 1966 article in the New England Journal of Medicine, detailing 22 protocols of dubious ethicality and declaring that the roster had been winnowed down from a longer list culled more or less from periodicals crossing his desk (Edgar, 495).

Publics fears concerning these cases

The public was very sensitive to these experiments since the US government had imprinted the crimes committed by the Nazi doctors throughout the war into their minds. When the public became aware that their own government was capable of the same devious unethical experimentation, two fears arose. The first was the frightening power of some political ideologies to demand that no private interest impede the accomplishment of the public good, and the second was the acute fear that people must adapt to whatever science produces, and that science is ultimately beyond social control (Edgar 496). Therefore, the U.S. government changed their slogans to focus on how the Nuremburg trials taught us that there must be limits to government power.

If Nuremberg was one critical underpinning for public attitudes toward human experimentation, the second was the social awareness that new medical breakthroughs affected not simply the individual patient, but also human life more generally. Given the dimensions of the...

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