Addicts (And Other Vulnerable Populations)

From the Washington Examiner: Federal programs gave addicts street drugs:

The federal government is giving crack and powder cocaine, morphine, and other hard-core drugs to taxpayer-funded researchers for testing on addicts, The Examiner has learned.
For decades, the government has authorized, funded and lobbied for studies in which otherwise illegal drugs were given to addicts in cities such as Washington, Bethesda, Baltimore, New York, Minneapolis and San Antonio. The studies continue today and have an array of aims, from documenting the ways cocaine warps the brain to the intensity of pain from morphine withdrawal.

Just 2 quick points:

1) Those versed in Research Ethics already understand this point, but this story highlights the conflict inherent in studying vulnerable populations: members of vulnerable populations can make for very good research subjects, precisely because they are vulnerable and the need to understand their problems is great. But their very vulnerability also makes studying them ethically treacherous. In many cases — not just in the case of addicts — their vulnerability tends to reduce our confidence in their ability to give valid consent.

2) The Examiner article seems somewhat slanted. It feels as if the reporter is defending otherwise-defenseless addicts against predatory researchers, which might just be unfair. And the story really provides too little information to figure out whether there’s anything inappropriate going on, here. But I think it’s useful to consider what the role of the media is. Yes, members of the news media are ethically obligated to be fair. But when in doubt, they ought to side with the weak & disadvantaged. I’m not necessarily rendering judgment on whether this particular story is fair & balanced. The point is simply that researchers & the institutions that fund them ought to expect, if not welcome, such scrutiny, and regard it as part of their public obligation to be ready to explain and defend their research on such vulnerable populations.

~ by Nancy Walton on March 30, 2009.

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