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Should prisoners participate in medical research trials?

Point: Not if you respect science and human rights; Counterpoint: Prisoners should not be excluded from the benefits of science.

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Should prisoners be permitted to participate in medical research trials?

Joe Magee

POINT: If one respects the tenets of science and of human rights, the answer is clear, says Vera Hassner Sharav, founder of the Alliance for Human Research Protection (AHRP), which advocates responsible and ethical medical research practices.

In 1973 the journalist Jessica Mitford famously summarized why prisoners were the preferred medical research subjects in the United States. They were “cheaper than chimpanzees,” she wrote in The Atlantic Monthly, quoting a physician involved in prison research.

More than three decades later, inmates are not only less expensive than chimps, they have fewer government protections. Annual reports submitted to Congress document the number and disposition of every chimp (and dog and hamster) used in research trials. But no federal law requires anyone to keep track of the number of humans used—or harmed—in clinical trials. In fact, the only protection prisoners have against being subjected to experimental abuse hangs on the thread of a single federal regulation, Subpart C of the Common Rule, and that regulation governs just federally funded research.

The recent Institute of Medicine recommendations to the Department of Health and Human Services, which commissioned the study on research involving prisoners through its Office for Human Research Protections, aim to strengthen federal oversight of human research. Yet the report, “Ethical Considerations for Research Involving Prisoners,” fails to fathom a fundamental truth: No matter what safeguards are put in place, the incarcerated can never freely give voluntary, informed consent because the fear of retaliation from prison officials precludes them from saying no to experiments.

The history of U.S. prison research confirms abuse, not benefit. Prisoners were exposed to cancer-causing and radioactive chemicals at Holmesburg Prison in Pennsylvania between 1951 and 1974. Juvenile inmates at Stockton Prison in California were subjected to psychotropic drug tests in 1997 despite regulatory prohibitions. A federal investigation in 2000 documented gross violations in prison research conducted by the University of Texas at Galveston. Inmates should be off-limits except for noninvasive research aimed at improving prison conditions, such as finding ways to prevent staph infections.

The push for prison experiments is motivated by business priorities. The biotech and pharmaceutical industries are addressing the shortage of volunteers by dipping into a deep pool of captive subjects with limited rights, housed in inherently coercive environments. Prisoner research is about exploitation, profit and expediency, not about the benefit of prisoners.

What’s more, when the subjects are inmates, a study’s scientific conclusions are highly suspect. Although it’s hard to know how often lockdowns occur—according to a California study, one facility underwent 391 in a year—just a few can seriously disrupt a trial. During a lockdown, prisoners are denied access to their medicines, including lifesaving ones. So whatever results are eventually reported are little more than junk science.

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