The Case for Evidence-Based Rulemaking in Human Subjects Research

American Journal of Bioethics 10 (6):3-13 (2010)
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Here I inquire into the status of the rules promulgated in the canonical pronouncements on human subjects research, such as the Declaration of Helsinki and the Belmont Report. The question is whether they are ethical rules or rules of policy. An ethical rule is supposed to accurately reflect the ethical fact (the fact that the action the rule prescribes is ethically obligatory), whereas rules of policy are implemented to achieve a goal. We should be skeptical, I argue, that the actions prescribed by the rules are ethically obligatory, and consequently we should focus our attention on how to craft the rules so as to promote the legitimate goals of human subjects research. Unfortunately, this cannot be done without evidence about the likely effects of various candidate policies—evidence we currently lack. Therefore, we should take the rules as mere starting points, subject to revision as the evidence comes in.



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Ben Sachs
University of St. Andrews