Last week President Obama issued a memo calling for calling for the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to "conduct, beginning in January 2011, a thorough review of human subjects protection to determine if Federal regulations and international standards adequately guard the health and well-being of participants in scientific studies supported by the Federal Government." The call was prompted by revelations earlier this fall that the U.S. Public Health Service conducted STD research on unsuspecting Guatemalans in the 1940s. But, as work by Duke authors attests, that was not an isolated incident.
In his recent book The Professional Guinea Pig, Roberto Abadie details how the pharmaceutical research industry uses human test subjects in sometimes ethically suspect ways. Abadie sees the commission as a positive development. He says, "The Presidential commission on ethics is an important step in understanding the role of the US government in this scandal but also in devising ways to protect current research subjects domestically and also abroad where most research will be conducted in the following years. It is important that the commission moves beyond abstract ethical principles and invocations and towards effective policy recommendations that recognize the changing landscape of human research protection. One important deficit the commission should address, for example, is the lack of a registry of research subjects' participation in clinical trials research covering all phases in clinical trials research both domestically and internationally. Without this instrument we are not able to tell how many trials a research subject has volunteered for, or if he or she is doing more than one trial at the same time, compromising thus, not only their well being but also the validity of the whole trial."
Karla FC Holloway is also working on issues of ethics in medical research. Her book Private Bodies, Public Texts will be out next March. She is also hopeful about the commission, saying "It's both appropriate and just that the president will convene a particular panel for this discussion. Bioethicists have identified certain subjects as 'vulnerable' for scores of years. But we have been less willing to acknowledge that that vulnerability is directly tied to social judgments about the quality of personhood, the value of certain lives, and the competition of scientific and research objectives—especially when it is centered on bodies that have less social capital. It's important to tie vulnerability to its source in order to make sure we don't allow our stereotypes to follow us into clinical research paradigms."