Research Ethics and National Security

The development of human research ethics, and of biomedical ethics itself, has been decisively influenced by experience with the involvement of human subjects in national security experiments. The signal event in this often dispiriting history was the exploitation of concentration camp prisoners in experiments under the cover of World War II, many sponsored by the Nazi German military apparatus. The culmination of the Nazi doctors' trial in 1947 was the creation of the Nuremberg Code, which set down rules for human subjects' research and is generally considered a landmark document in biomedical ethics (Moreno).

Subsequent policies regulating human experiments on biological, chemical and atomic warfare in the U.S. military during the cold war specifically referenced the Nuremberg Code. However, these policies were not always followed, in some instances because the activity in question was not considered to be a medical experiment but a training exercise. Secrecy has itself proven to be among the greatest single obstacles to developing consistently applied ethical standards in this area.

The populations that have been involved in national security research represent a wide range, from military personnel, conscientious objectors, and institutionalized persons including prisoners, mental patients and medical patients. Military personnel in particular occupy a complex role because they are expected to subject themselves to risks that would not be required of others, and must accept medical interventions that will preserve or reestablish their fitness for duty (Moreno). Certain basic ethical standards have been recommended, such as appropriate security clearance for all parties, including subjects, prior review by an institutional review board, an appeals process, informed consent, and record keeping (Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments).

Like the other bioethical issues associated with bioterrorism, the development of ethical standards for the involvement of human beings in national security experiments requires the resources of several disciplines. Still more challenging, is the application of these standards, which requires a level of engagement with the political system that clearly identifies bioethics as a practical moral activity.

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