News from the Tennessee Valley Opinion
TUESDAY, JUNE 21, 2005


Use of human subjects in tests a complex ethical issue

Using humans as guinea pigs for medical experimentation is a hot-button issue that lends itself to glib condemnation.

It is also a practice that, properly regulated, has the potential for tremendous good.

President Bush's permissive approach to human testing is so inconsistent with his expressed views on other issues — especially his opposition to the medical use of stem cells — that it may be nothing more than a function of his cozy relationship with drug companies. His motives are irrelevant, however, to the complex ethical issues surrounding the issue.

Historically, human testing has run the gamut from producing tremendous social good with minimal harm to test subjects, to producing no social good with horrible harm to unwitting subjects.

In Tuskegee, between 1932 and 1972, in a study of syphilis, researchers took 200 syphilis victims — all poor and black — off their medications and proceeded to watch many of them die.

Other studies, however, fared better. Human testing of small pox, polio and pellagra helped yield scientific benefits that saved the lives of thousands.

The most virulent criticism is often aimed at tests that make the most sense. Over the years, numerous death row inmates volunteered for scientific research. A reasonable argument exists that — properly regulated — these are the most ethical examples of human testing. It permits people who have exacted the greatest toll on society to repay their debt.

Critics of human testing are wise to focus on whether human subjects are voluntary and whether they are fully informed of the risks. They are also right to look at whether the subjects too consistently come from disadvantaged economic or ethnic populations.

But as a society, we must not forget the tremendous good that can come from carefully constructed experimentation. The answers are not clear-cut, but the issue's importance demands an objective evaluation.

Leave feedback
on this or