February 27, 2024


The US government is studying whether to relax its restrictions on the participation of prisoners in medical research. Under the existing rules, prisoners may only participate in studies which could benefit them directly or in which they are disproportionately involved, such as AIDS. “The current regulations are very, very protective of prisoners,” says a policy analyst for the Office of Human Research Protections. “Some voices in the community have argued they are an inappropriate disincentive to researchers.”

Opening prison gates to more researchers is a controversial topic. I’ve seen too many cases where good people can do some very damaging things,” says Allen Hornblum, a medical ethicist at Temple University. In fact, the current regulations, adopted in 1978, were a response to abuses such as burning prisoners to mimic the effects of atomic explosions, injections with live cancer cells, and behaviour- modification techniques such as castration and electric shock. On the other hand, prisoners might want to participate in experiments to relieve boredom, get extra privileges or repay society. As well, some argue that prisoners have a positive right to participate in research. This is the case in Europe.

In the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal, however, Harvard bioethicist Dan Wikler feels that it is not a good time to change the status quo. “Prisons are closed institutions and no one knows what’s going on inside,” he says. Expecting that all researchers will behave ethically is unrealistic. “We have not reached a state of enlightenment.” A report on the issue for the Department of Health and Human Services will be presented in March.