Non-Consenting Adults

By Harriet A. Washington

The Nuremberg Code, set up to protect the human subjects of research, is being routinely ignored.


Sixty-five years ago in Nuremberg, Germany, American prosecutors confronted the Nazi physicians who had subjected Jews and others to a murderous regime of medical research. The “doctors’ trial” was the first of the war crimes trials; one of its outcomes was the famous Nuremberg Code, a set of ethical guidelines for human experimentation.

The first tenet of the code is very clear: “The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential.”

Today, the Nuremberg Code is the most important influence on U.S. law governing human medical research. Even so, marginalized groups have frequently been coerced into studies that violate their right to consent. A recent review of the bioethics of human research in the U.S. offers little prospect for change.

My book Medical Apartheid documents many cases. In 1994, for example, the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston was accused of enrolling poor black women into narcotic-treatment research without their knowledge. The next year in Los Angeles, anexperimental measles vaccine was tested on children, mostly black and Hispanic, without their parents’ consent. In 1994 and 1995, New York City law enforcement officials helped researchers coerce black parents into enrolling their boys into a study that sought to establish a genetic propensity for violence, again without their consent. And in 2001, the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore was found guilty by a Maryland court of encouraging black families to move into lead-contaminated housing as part of a study on lead levels in children (the verdict was later overturned).

This scourge has spread beyond racial minorities………………….

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