In this issue of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, we subject the work of the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments to examination from many angles. Nearly one year has passed since the release of the Committee’s final report and recommendations, and it seems an appropriate time to invite discourse and reflection on the influence and impact of the Committee and its efforts. Our intent is to advance understanding of the Committee and its work, its place in the evolution of bioethics and public policy, as well as the broader legacy of restoring trust in the conduct of human subjects research.
In 1993, President Clinton and Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary initiated an investigation of America’s involvement in radiation experiments on its citizens during the Cold War. The investigation resulted in the appointment of the Committee in January 1994. Some issues raised by these radiation experiments were brought to the attention of the nation by revelations contained in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of newspaper stories about plutonium injections carried out by the government on allegedly unsuspecting subjects during the Cold War. The Committee faced a broad mandate, which included piecing together the history of Cold War radiation experiments and human subjects research, as well as recommending remedies for past wrongs and mechanisms to ensure that such wrongs could not be repeated in the future.
This issue of the Journal consists of articles and accompanying commentaries on historical, philosophical, policy, and political aspects of the Committee’s work that are important to bioethics. This collection of articles, authored by Committee members, staff, and leading scholars, is designed to paint a picture of the breadth and complexity of the Committee’s efforts and to provide context and to stimulate discussion of significant issues.
In the first article, Ruth Faden provides her unique perspective as chair of the Committee. She goes beyond the necessary overview and background of the Committee to reflect on the impact and meaning of the Committee’s work to bioethics and public policy.
Much of the Committee’s effort was directed at gathering and uncovering information about the history of Cold War radiation experiments, an endeavor fairly foreign to bioethics but critically important to understanding the context in which to make moral judgments about the past. Jonathan Moreno and Susan Lederer discuss how the Committee’s work changed some of the traditional views of the history of research ethics. The commentary by Allan Brandt and Lara Freidenfelds further illuminates the value of understanding this recovered history. [End Page ix]
In making moral judgments about the past, the Committee confronted complex questions about how to assess wrongdoing and the culpability of the government and its agents. Allen Buchanan explains why this was such a difficult but crucial task and how the Committee worked through some of the answers to these questions. His discussion illustrates the challenges to consensus in the committee decision-making process described in Ruth Macklin’s article in this issue on committees and consensus. Tom Beauchamp analyzes the frameworks for making retrospective moral judgments developed by two committees, the Advisory Committee and the University of California at San Francisco Ad Hoc Fact Finding Committee on World War II Human Radiation Experiments, and critiques their applications of the frameworks in the case of the plutonium injection experiments.
The Committee recognized that in order to prevent wrongs seen in the past from occurring in the future, it would be necessary to understand the human subjects protections now in place. Nancy Kass and Jeremy Sugarman discuss the results of the Committee’s attempts to measure the operation and effectiveness of the current system for protection of human subjects. Paul Appelbaum comments on the relevance and value of the Committee’s empirical projects to contemporary human subjects research.
The Committee’s work, and the products of any commission’s work, must be viewed partly in light of the place of commissions in bioethics scholarship and policymaking. Appointed commissions can have significant impacts on scholarly and public thinking, policymaking, and future direction, and bring high visibility to issues. It is important to realize that the conclusions of the Committee...