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Commentary: Examining the Ethics of Human Subjects Research
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Examining the Ethics of Human Subjects Research

The work of the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments confirms once again the value of combining empirical and normative approaches to problems in clinical and research ethics. The Committee, like its predecessor, the President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research, spent relatively modest sums of money gathering targeted data to inform its deliberations. The results of the Committee’s research, which are discussed by Nancy Kass and Jeremy Sugarman in this issue of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, enhance our understanding of the current ethical status of human subjects research, helping to focus attention on areas of particular concern, and lay the basis for future research and policy development.

My comments here focus on the two major empirical studies conducted by the Committee—the Research Proposal Review Project and the Subject Interview Study. I will underscore just a few of the primary findings from these studies, consider their limitations, and explore their implications. Readers interested in the details of the studies should consult the Committee’s Final Report (ACHRE 1995), on which I rely in part and which provides additional information on the methodology and findings of the studies.

Research Proposal Review Project

What can be learned from the Committee’s review of 125 federally-funded human research studies? In answering that question, one cannot ignore the irony inherent in the Committee’s decision to review documents related to institutional review board (IRB) consideration of the selected protocols. The single most frequent complaint about the current system for protecting human subjects is that IRBs focus almost exclusively on review of consent forms and other research documents, as if they bore some close relationship to what actually transpires between investigators and potential research subjects. Only a small number of studies examine the research consent process. Nevertheless, existing data strongly [End Page 283] suggest that subject recruitment often involves an extended process of courtship, during which the information contained in consent forms is only a small part of the information passed between investigators and subjects (Benson, Roth, and Winslade 1985; Lidz et al. 1984).

Indeed, the second of the Committee’s studies—the Subject Interview Study, which is discussed below—appears to confirm these findings. In-depth interviews with 99 individuals who reported that they were former or current research subjects suggest that “[f]or many, the decision to participate seemed to have been made before the consent form was given to them, and they signed it almost as a formality” (ACHRE 1995 [GPO, p. 742; Oxford, p. 471]). 1 Why, then, did the Committee focus its attention on documents that in many cases seem to play only a tangential role in the consent process? As is the case with IRBs around the country, the answer appears to be that consent forms and related documents are the only easily available window on consent transactions. In addition, under the current system, consent forms constitute the part of the process that IRBs can influence most easily. Consequently, it suits almost everyone’s needs—except perhaps those of the research subjects—to pretend that they reflect what actually transpires in the recruitment process. To the Committee’s credit, it was well aware of this dilemma. Nonetheless, it struggled to wring valid lessons from these limited data in its Final Report.

Perhaps the most interesting finding from the Research Proposal Review Project is just how poor so many consent forms are. Given the disproportionate emphasis that many IRBs place on the content of the forms, one would expect that investigators by now would have learned to design documents that meet objective standards of adequacy, such as those applied by the Committee. Indeed, except in the most unusual circumstances, doing so would virtually guarantee that the IRB will ask no further questions about subject recruitment procedures. Although the data justify the inference that many investigators do not yet understand which information is essential to communicate to potential subjects, nor have learned how to do so effectively, they also force us to a still more radical conclusion. If the IRBs were doing their jobs, the Committee...