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Human Research. Vaughn Chapter 6. Human Research Only a Utilitarian Could Love?. Nazi experimentation on prisoners and civilians US Public Health Service study of syphilis using poor black men from Macon County, AL

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human research

Human Research

Vaughn Chapter 6

human research only a utilitarian could love
Human Research Only a Utilitarian Could Love?
  • Nazi experimentation on prisoners and civilians
  • US Public Health Service study of syphilis using poor black men from Macon County, AL
  • US government Cold War studies of radiation effects on thousands of human subjects from 1944-74
  • Willowbrook State Hospital in NY study of hepatitis, infecting mentally retarded children

Negative public reaction to these events, and others, produced:

  • The Nuremburg Code (guidelines for ethical research), 1947
  • Declaration of Helsinki, embraced by the World Medical Association (WMA) in 1964
  • Belmont Report, 1979, of the National Commission for the protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research
  • 1993 guidelines from World Health Organization (WHO), and Council for International Organizations of Medical Sciences (CIOMS)
  • Prompted President Bill Clinton’s public apology, 1997
clinical trials
Clinical Trials

Clinical Trial = “[a] scientific study designed to test a medical intervention in humans ...” –Vaughn, 194

Clinical trials …

  • exist to determine whether a given drug or procedure is safe and effective
  • are the best available method to determine that

Vaughn mentions 3 virtues of clinical trials:

maximize objectivity

minimize bias

avoid errors

What kinds of value to 1 - 3 have?




clinical trials1
Clinical Trials


  • Experimental group
  • the group getting the new treatment
  • Control group
  • the group(s) not getting the new treatment
  • Placebo control = group gets a sugar pill or equivalent
  • Active control = group gets a standard treatment already known to work (to some degree)

2 kinds

clinical trials2
Clinical Trials

Blinding = keeping experimental and control group membership secret

  • single-blind study = test subjects are kept in the dark regarding group membership
  • double-blind study = both test subjects and researchers are kept in the dark as to who is in which group
  • Randomization = assigning experimental and control group membership randomly
  • to ensure the variety of test subjects are evenly distributed between groups
    • eliminate researcher bias
clinical trials3
Clinical Trials

Phases I

  • small group
  • adverse reactions
  • safe doses
  • non-therapeutic / no testing for efficacy

Phase II

  • medium group
  • safety
  • preliminary effectiveness study

Phases III

  • large group (thousands)
  • therapeutic (hopefully, to those in experimental group)
  • success here qualifies the drug or procedure for widespread use

Phase IV

  • not universally used
  • done after procedure or drug is marketed
  • long-term effects
beneficence science and placebos
Beneficence, Science, and Placebos

Beneficence = doing good for others

in the context of medical science (treatment of patients and test subjects),

  • beneficence = the duty to help others
  • non-malfeasance = the duty not to harm others

Science = in Vaughn, science is presented as in occasional conflict with the duties of beneficence and non-malfeasance

Question: why present the conflict this way, rather than between duties to present and future patients?

beneficence science and placebos1
Beneficence, Science, and Placebos

Beneficence vs. ‘Science’

“… conflict with the aim of doing science.” -para2, p197

“… treated merely as a means to the end of scientific knowledge.” –para3, p197

“ … beneficence and science collide.” –last paragraph, p198

Is it really some abstract love of science researchers are pursuing when researching drugs and procedures?

What is it they’re doing, if not that?

beneficence science and placebos2
Beneficence, Science, and Placebos

The main question of this section (Beneficence, Science, and Placebos), is …

How can a physician recommend a patient for clinical trials over prescribing the best known treatment?


“As a physician, she has an obligation to act in the best interests of her patients, which requires that she offer to them only those treatments she judges to be the best. But in clinical trials, patients are randomized into experimental and control groups where they may not receive the treatment that the physician believes is best.” – para1, p198

beneficence science and placebos3
Beneficence, Science, and Placebos

Reply to problem:

Physicians can recommend participation in clinical trials because they don’t know which treatment is better; they are in a state of equipoise (“rationally balanced between the alternatives” –para2, p198), and so cannot be recommending a treatment they know to be inferior

Defense of problem:

Physicians owe their patients their best judgment, and if there is just a hunch that a standard treatment is better than a new one, physicians cannot recommend, they are not in a state of equipoise

beneficence science and placebos4
Beneficence, Science, and Placebos

Reply to Defense:

Equipoise is not subjective … it is the state of scientific knowledge where the relative merits of 2 or more treatments is unknown. When those are unknown, including patients in randomized trials is permissible

So, is there any conflict between 1, physicians revealing their honest treatment preferences and 2, offering patients a chance to participate in clinical trials? –para2, p198

Vaughn suggests that as long as full disclosure is met and informed consent is gained, the answer is ‘no’.

beneficence science and placebos5
Beneficence, Science, and Placebos

Placebos raise another problem:

“Can the deliberate nontreatment of patients be justified?” –para1, p199

The book says ‘Yes’, conditionally:

  • If there is an effective treatment already available, a placebo controlled human study is unethical
  • When lack of treatment is life-threatening, the above rule is at its strongest

3 Questions:

  • Did the AZT placebo-controlled trial violate this rule? –see quotation on p199
  • If the lack of treatment results in minor harm, is placebo-controlled trial permissible?
  • Is equipoise possible in a placebo-controlled trial?
science and informed consent
Science and Informed Consent

Vaughn provides a checklist (from CIOMS and WHO) of what research scientists owe clinical trial participants (see p200-201)

Main worries about the possibility of getting meaningful informed consent:

  • subjects are not able to comprehend enough science to give informed consent
  • subjects may, in some cases, consent out of desperation, fear, or wishful thinking, … all of which threaten informed consent
  • subjects may be coerced or exploited by payments for helping in the research

You should know Vaughn’s responses to these objections (1 & 3 … he gives no reply to 2)

research on the vulnerable
Research on the Vulnerable

Problematic special cases involve clinical trials that involve those who cannot give informed consent and are at the mercy of others:

  • children
  • mentally disabled
  • prisoners
  • minorities
  • people in developing countries

To take children for example, Vaughn tells us many effective therapies that help children could only be developed by studies on children (as their physiology and pathologies differ substantially from adults)

research on the vulnerable1
Research on the Vulnerable

According to Vaughn, “most official policies” follow these guidelines:

  • “… research in children is morally acceptable if it is conducted for their sake, if it is done to generate the therapies they need.” (individually, or as a group?)
  • consent is required (age of consent is controversial)
  • a proper balance of risk and reward for the research subjects

“[t]he child’s refusal to participate in research must always be respected unless according to the research protocol the child would receive therapy for which there is no medically acceptable alternative.” –p203, (Vaughn cites CIOMS and WHO)

research on the vulnerable2
Research on the Vulnerable

The previous slide is about the justification of therapeutic research on children.

  • What about non-therapeutic research using children?
  • Is that ever morally permissible?

See Vaughn’s discussion on p203 … as risk to the research subject goes up, so do requirements for …

  • meaningful consent,
  • better balance of reward vs. risk, and
  • therapeutic benefit for the child undergoing the tests
research on the vulnerable3
Research on the Vulnerable

The guidelines for treatment of the mentally disabled are similar as those for children, but with special concern for susceptibility to exploitation:

  • conditioned to defer to authority figures
  • fear punishment from caretakers for refusing to participate
  • desperation for change of routine or special attention might amount to coercion
research on the vulnerable4
Research on the Vulnerable

Vulnerable subjects in Third World countries …

Vaughn provides this scenario:

  • AZT is a drug that reduces HIV transmission from women to their fetuses
  • The dose of the drug was too high to be affordable in these countries (Thailand and some African countries)
  • Placebo-controlled trials were conducted to determine if a lower, cheaper dose would work
  • Because placebo-controlled trials guarantee some women will not get the experimental dose, those women’s children are virtually guaranteed to get HIV
  • The results of the trials were positive; the lower dose worked in reducing HIV transmission

Compare Marcia Angell’s condemnation of these trials to Baruch Brody’s defense of them (p204-205); who is right?