Coverage in Scientific American

The Scientific American published an article today that discusses a recent paper I co-authored with colleagues from the University of Birmingham and the U.K. Health Research Authority:

Should Prisoners Be Used in Medical Experiments?

History is rife with unethical experiments on inmates. But with proper safeguards prisoner studies may hold the key to the accurate representation of vulnerable groups and lead to health benefits

The year was 1946, and under the guise of public health hundreds of Guatemalan prison inmates were deliberately infected with syphilis. Male prisoners were sometimes infected via direct injection—including right to the penis. Still other prisoners got sick after visits from prostitutes who were often also purposely infected. None of the research subjects were asked for their consent.
Some six decades later Pres. Barack Obama called Álvaro Colom, Guatemala’s president, to personally apologize for the abhorrent U.S. government–led research. But that case is just one of many egregious prisoner experiments that have occurred throughout history. Until the early 1970s most pharmaceutical research was conducted on prisoners—everything from studying chemical warfare agents to testing dandruff treatments.

In the years since, firm protections have been erected for prison populations in medical research, predicated on the idea that even when prisoners volunteer for inclusion in clinical trials, coercion might still be playing a role. As a result, the U.S. and other countries have implemented such tight controls on prison population participation that inmates are often left out of research entirely.

Such routine exclusion may harm both prisoners and the public good, argues Heather Draper, a biomedical ethicist at the University of Birmingham in England. “Exploitation need not be inevitable,” she wrote in a study published June 23 in the Journal of Medical Ethics. She calls for a reexamination of current guidance on the matter in the U.K. and other countries. … Read more