Vulnerable Subjects

Why Does Informed Consent Matter?



During the Second World War the Imperial Japanese Army conducted disturbing experiments on Chinese prisoners of war by exposing them to sub-zero temperatures to determine the most effective way to deal with frostbite. Japanese officials’ justification was that the research was essential for national security. This experiment was addressed in the Nuremberg Trials, and subsequently led to intense discussion regarding informed consent.

Yet other research, even after Nuremberg, exploited marginalized and vulnerable individuals without their consent. These experiments include Joseph Stokes’ project infecting 200 female prisoners with viral hepatitis, using experimental drugs on prisoners in Pennsylvania, and injecting uranium into nearly a dozen patients at Massachusetts General Hospital. This is not an exhaustive list. Fear about human research exploitation is especially prevalent in African American communities after the syphilis studies in Tuskegee and Guatemala lasting for four decades. The experiments mentioned above highlight not only the political dynamics of unethical research on vulnerable individuals but also continuing disregard for ethical standards in scientific research. They offer particular insight into the way in which such research has been passionately defended not only by the research team but also by other scientists in the field.

Informed consent is a crucial aspect of medical research. This is particularly important where research can have a powerful and irreversible effect on the research participants. Researchers have immense influence, and they are given opportunities to patent the results, work for large financial interests, and more. Too often the distractions dominate and dictate researchers’ actions, leading to breaches in conduct with the subjects. And unfortunately, the most likely to be harmed are vulnerable individuals: children, mentally ill, the poor, and/or traditionally disadvantaged racial groups.

Goodwin, M. (2016). Vulnerable Subjects: Why Does Informed Consent Matter? The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics. Retrieved from

  • Marina Kwak

Image: Unit 731, where many war-crime medical experiments were carried out in Japan during WWII. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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