The Role of Research Ethics Committees in Making Decisions About Risk

HEC Forum 26 (3):203-224 (2014)
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Most medical research and a substantial amount of non-medical research, especially that involving human participants, is governed by some kind of research ethics committee (REC) following the recommendations of the Declaration of Helsinki for the protection of human participants. The role of RECs is usually seen as twofold: firstly, to make some kind of calculation of the risks and benefits of the proposed research, and secondly, to ensure that participants give informed consent. The extent to which the role of the REC includes the former is not uncontroversial. Indeed, the most prevalent debate on the role of RECs sees liberals and strong paternalists arguing over the importance of informed consent given by competent agents versus the significance of making benevolent decisions on behalf of others. On the one hand, liberals argue for the rights of competent adults to decide for themselves the kinds and extents of risks to which they wish to expose themselves. On the other hand, proponents of strong paternalism raise concerns about the likelihood of participants being able to truly understand the complex data involved in research. They support a role for RECs in which they exercise duties of benevolence towards patients and participants by limiting the extent to which they can be exposed to significant, permanent and irreversible harms. In this paper, we will argue that when it comes to decisions about risk it is neither possible nor desirable for RECs to adopt either role
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