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Vulnerability, Vulnerable Populations, and Policy
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Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 14.4 (2004) 411-425



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Vulnerability, Vulnerable Populations, and Policy

"Special justification is required for inviting vulnerable individuals to serve as research subjects and, if they are selected, the means of protecting their rights and welfare must be strictly applied."

Guideline 13: Research Involving Vulnerable Persons
International Ethical Guidelines for Biomedical
Research Involving Human Subjects
Council for International Organizations of
Medical Sciences (CIOMS) and
World Health Organization (WHO)
Geneva, Switzerland, 2002

Within medical research and healthcare certain groups are afforded special protections and services because of their designation as vulnerable. The vulnerable require special justification to participate in human subject research in order to eliminate potential human rights abuses. The Nuremberg Code of 1947 was written in response to the extreme human subject abuses that occurred under the Nazi regime, and, although the intent of the 1947 Code was to protect human rights, rigid voluntary consent requirements deprived some individuals of the right to participate in clinical trials. Recent human research guidelines, such as the CIOMS/WHO guidelines referenced above and the guidelines referenced in Section V of this Scope Note, attempt to balance both protection from abuse in research and access to new, experimental treatments for the vulnerable.

Although various protective guidelines stipulate special protections for vulnerable populations, the concept of vulnerability and consequently the criteria designating vulnerable populations remain vague. Precisely who are the vulnerable? The word "vulnerability" stems from the Latin vulnerare, "to wound." (Oxford Encyclopedic English Dictionary 1995). In clinical research, the term [End Page 411] vulnerable generally is applied to individuals who are unable to give informed consent or who are susceptible to coercion. The Common Rule (45 CFR 46, Subpart A) includes as vulnerable research subjects: children, prisoners, pregnant women, and persons who are handicapped, mentally disabled, economically disadvantaged, or educationally disadvantaged. Although the Common Rule specifies certain vulnerable categories, the guidelines were not intended to be exclusive, leaving open the interpretation of vulnerability.

In medical research and health policy, vulnerability is an abstract concept that has concrete effects both for those labeled vulnerable and for those not. Clinical researchers, healthcare workers, ethical reviewers, and policymakers must be able to identify vulnerable subjects to establish how healthcare resources will be allocated and who will qualify for special protections and socialized benefits. Attempts to quantify vulnerability in clear, measurable ways have met little if any consensus. As Alexander Morawa (II, 2003, p. 150) states, "There is no single approach to definition of vulnerability. In fact, there is no purposeful categorisation at all."

Difficulties in defining vulnerability have prompted discourse surrounding its utility as a qualifying factor in the allocation of health resources and its appropriateness as a guiding principle in bioethics. Some of the authors cited in this Scope Note argue against the labeling and categorization of vulnerable individuals and populations. "Labeling individuals as 'vulnerable' risks viewing vulnerable individuals as 'others' worthy of pity, a view rarely appreciated" (III, Danis and Patrick 2002, p. 320). The categories of vulnerable groups listed under the Common Rule have been the source of controversy, "for example, many find the suggestion that pregnant women are vulnerable to be quite sexist" (IV, DeBruin 2001, p. 7). Instead of creating categories of vulnerable populations, would it not be better to derive an account of just treatment from a just social policy at large that encompasses human vulnerabilities (II, Brock 2002, p. 283).

For some of the authors listed here, the concept of vulnerability is essential to bioethics. Robert Goodin (I, 1985, p. 107) writes that the vulnerability of other human beings is the source of our special responsibilities to them. In contrast to the four American principles of biomedical ethics—autonomy, nonmaleficence, beneficence, and justice—the four principles of European bioethics and biolaw include vulnerability along with autonomy, dignity, and integrity. According to, Jacob Dahl Rendtorff and Peter Kemp (I, 2000, p. 274) "the principle of vulnerability is ontologically prior to the other [European] principles, it expresses better than all of the other ethical principles . . . the finitude of the human condition."

Some of the...