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Chair's Perspective on the Work of the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments
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Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 6.3 (1996) 215-221

On January 15, 1994, President Clinton created the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments in response to his concern about the increasing number of reports describing alleged unethical conduct of the U.S. Government, and institutions funded by the government, in the use of, or exposure to, ionizing radiation in human beings at the height of the Cold War. He directed the Committee: (1) to uncover the history of human radiation experiments and intentional environmental releases of radiation; (2) to identify the ethical and scientific standards for evaluating these events; and (3) to make recommendations to ensure that whatever wrongdoing may have occurred in the past will not be repeated.

The Committee was composed of 14 members: a citizen representative and 13 experts in bioethics, radiation oncology and biology, epidemiology and statistics, public health, history of science and medicine, nuclear medicine, and law. We reported to a cabinet-level group (the Human Radiation Interagency Working Group) convened by the president, which includes the secretaries of defense, energy, health and human services, and veterans affairs; the attorney general; the administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration; the director of the Central Intelligence Agency; and the director of the Office of Management and Budget.

On April 21, 1994, at the end of the first day of our first meeting, President Clinton invited us to the White House to personally communicate his commitment to the process we were about to undertake. He urged us to be fair, thorough, and unafraid to shine the light of truth on this hidden and poorly understood aspect of our nation's past. Our most important task, he said, was to tell the full story to the American public. At the same time, we were to examine the present, to determine how the conduct of human research today compares with that of the past, and to assess whether, in light of this inquiry, changes need to be made in the policies of the federal government. Eighteen months later, the Committee's attempt to tell the story of the past and to report on our inquiry into the present was delivered to the president in a 900-page Final Report (ACHRE 1995) and several supplemental volumes.

The Committee's charge was enormous. We were asked to conduct a massive investigation into events that occurred as much as 50 years ago and that involved the highest reaches of the defense establishment and the medical community. This investigation necessitated an examination of the conduct and policies of six federal agencies and countless agents in the private sector, as well as the location and interpretation of hundreds of thousands of documents, many of which were buried in obscure locations or were still classified.

In addition, the Committee was instructed to establish standards for judging, in moral terms, the events that it uncovered. This charge necessitated the confrontation of contentious debates in moral thought and theory about history, relativism, and the significance of context in moral judgment. But our purpose was not to engage in these debates in the abstract. Although the Committee was not expressly charged with considering issues relating to remedies, including financial compensation, we felt obliged to address the type of remedies that we believed the government, as an ethical matter, should provide to subjects of experiments where the circumstances warranted such a response. Thus our deliberations about relativism and moral judgment were tied to concrete recommendations for public policy and were conducted in a public context that included participants from numerous adversarial legal proceedings.

In tandem with our reconstruction of the past, we undertook three projects to examine the current state of human radiation experiments. First, we studied how each federal agency that currently conducts or funds research involving human subjects regulates and oversees its research activity. Second, from among the very large number of federally-supported research projects involving human subjects, we randomly selected 125 projects for closer scrutiny. We reviewed all available relevant documentation for each project in order to assess how well it appeared to protect the rights and interests of the participating subjects. Third, to learn about the perspectives of subjects themselves, the Committee...

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