Utilitarianism is an economic ideal – you spend a minimum to obtain a maximum. Human subject research follows the same principle, as individuals are constantly utilized for advancing knowledge and technology and essentially benefiting millions, if not billions of people. These human subjects, however, are prone to irreversible and fatal consequences throughout the research process. Human subject research poses a great dilemma: should we sacrifice human ethics for potential medical development, or should we protect all individuals and halt scientific advancement?
Although the course of human experimentation has became increasingly more ethical, the act still remains controversial for their methods. Human subject research was most prevalent during World War II, when Nazi-Germany performed inhumane acts in the name of eugenics and Japan operated the covert project Unit 731 for biochemical warfare. Attitudes towards human clinical trials shifted over the decades; today, experiments are more appropriate because we preach morals. Though Nazi-Germany eugenic experiments and current investigations trying to curing cancer are on opposite ends of the morality spectrum, both share one common characteristic: they place human beings in potentially fatal circumstances. Though contemporary human subject research cannot cease, we must still ensure that subjects are well protected.
Research subjects who participate in such experiments must be offered protection against all negative outcomes. Recently, 800 victims of the infamous Guatemala syphilis experiments filed a lawsuit for $1 billion against John Hopkins University for the school’s involvement in the experiment. This situation exemplifies how the failure to ensure subject safety will eschew responsibility and cause endless complications. Although medical technology back then could have not improved the subjects’ conditions, victims are still fighting for justice, as they should be.
It was recently announced that the world’s first human head transplant would be conducted within the next two years. Russian man Valery Siridonov has volunteered to undergo this surgery, as he suffers from a degenerative muscular disease that confines him to wheelchair. He believes that the experiment “isn’t only an excellent opportunity […], but it will also create a scientific basis for future generations.” Despite the fact that Siridonov is optimistically prepared for the worst outcome, professionals contend that this surgery is impractical and the subject will “experience a fate worse than death”. In situations where human subjects are fully aware and eager, should we respect their decisions despite the possibly inhumane consequences?
Human beings are oftentimes necessary in biomedical experimentation for solutions to and explanations of scientific and psychological enigmas, thus it is nearly impossible to halt current practices. In carrying out experiments with unknown outcomes, agencies and governments must ensure that they can be responsible for the research subjects by contemplating the procedures and consequences without neglecting ethics. The subjects, too, must recognize all possible results and be fully willing to commit themselves in such risky activities. Medicine should not only be based in science, but also in ethics; otherwise, our findings may only come as a result of someone else’s suffering.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2015 issue of UNIT-E. It was written by Stella Huang, a student at Tsinghua International School
UNIT-E was founded in the spring of 2010 with the aim of establishing a non-profit, student-run magazine for international students in Beijing. Staffed by current students from a range of international schools, the magazine provides an amalgam of cultural tidbits, fragments of Beijing student life, and a broad spectrum of unique perspectives from a diverse group of young adults.
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