July 4, 2022

“Vulnerable populations”: a necessary concept in research ethics?

How important is the label “vulnerable populations” in research ethics?

How important is the label “vulnerable populations” in research ethics?

“Vulnerable populations” are groups of individuals who in one or more ways are at risk of harm through research; research ethics committees often use the term to identify groups that are at risk in particular research projects.

In recent years scholars have criticised the use of this term, as it lacks a sensitivity to contextual factors that impact on the vulnerability of individuals — pregnant women, for example, may be more or less vulnerable depending on the stage of gestation or the presence of illness, and minority groups can differ in their susceptibility to exploitation or manipulation.

But some commentators are defending the use of “vulnerability” in research ethics.

National University of Singapore sociologist Adrian Kwek argues that we need the label of vulnerability to reason through difficult ethical problems in bioethics. Writing in the journal Bioethics, Kwek suggests that where principlism and casuistry fail to provide uncontroversial ethical conclusions, reference to vulnerable populations can provide a way of resolving relevant bioethical quandaries: “labelled groups as exemplars of vulnerability can play indispensable roles in bioethical reasoning”. Kwek states:

“The pair of reasoning methods that has received much attention in bioethics – specified principlism and casuistry – can leave gaps that require intuitive balancing. Labelled groups as exemplars of vulnerability can plug some of these gaps. The contribution is both practical in helping to arrive at morally nuanced judgments and theoretical in providing a further provisionally stable point of discursive justification where specified norms conflict or where paradigm cases are underdetermined.”

Duquesne University bioethicist Henk Ten Have gone so far as to argue that vulnerability should be introduced as a new principle in biomedical ethics. In a 2015 article in Bioethical Inquiry, Ten Have argued that bioethics should begin by considering the fact of human vulnerability — the fragility and weakness characteristic of the human condition — and develop ethical procedures based on this fundamental observation.

“Vulnerable populations”: a necessary concept in research ethics?
Xavier Symons
Creative commons
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