The Ethics of Human Experimentation


EXPERIMENTAL SUBJECTS WANTED--but to be subjected to what? They don't always know. How can they be protected, and what should they be protected from? Scientific experiments have yielded the Theory of Relativity, the transistor, the computer and lots of other Space Age goodies. Think what it might yield when applied to human beings.

Numerous experiments under Harvard's auspices employ human subjects. Many are in psychology and the other social sciences, but there are others in the physical sciences and biology. Such experiments raise a host of complicated ethical, legal, political and humanistic issues. Research is a cornerstone of large universities, but experimenters who use humans may cause damage, unlike the harmless academics who warm seats somewhere in Widener. By raising questions which demand examination, human experimentation limits the classic unfettered freedom of academic research.

A glance at the notice board in William James Hall reveals the existence of numerous ongoing experiments. The Faculty of Arts and Science Standing Committee on the Use of Human Subjects evaluates about fifteen proposals at each of its monthly meetings. The Timothy Leary acid days are gone, but occasional controversies still occur. Recently a State University of New York (SUNY) professor was sued for an experiment he conducted in which student subjects received electrical shocks.

At Harvard, the last fifteen years have seen the gradual evolution from a voluntary advisory board on experiments to the present Standing Committee, which is empowered to approve or dissapprove the proposals of students, professors and associates of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. HEW guidelines now require all institutions receiving funding to have a committee approve any experiment it conducts using human subjects. The SUNY case only strengthens the federal government's incentive to closely regulate the use of human subjects.

Harvard's watchdog committee is composed of faculty members, students, a doctor, a lawyer, a Cambridge City Planner, and two UHS administrators. All experimenters using human subjects are required to submit their proposals to this committee. Some decisions are clearly determined by FAS guidelines--especially those which involve the use of "physical stimuli, in abnormal amounts," the ingestion of toxic materials, or illegal drugs. But the majority of the cases are not so clearcut. The committee sizes up the issues, and makes its judgement.

Confidentiality was the issue in one psychology experiment where subjects were videotaped and tested. The committee required that subjects be consulted in the event that the experimenter showed the tapes to anyone outside the experimental staff. A study which involved interviews about subjects' illegal activities was conducted very carefully, so that no questions were asked which would legally incriminate subjects, or involve experimenters as accomplices.

MORE COMPLICATED DECISIONS involve the issue of subjects' "informed consent." The committee must judge if subjects are "competent" to decide whether or not to participate in the study--a particularly salient point in clinical studies and studies of children. Experimenters in the social sciences sometimes deceive the subjects as to their purpose, in order to get unself-conscious results. How informed must consent be? Someone must decide, because the subjects' lack of knowledge about what they're participating in renders them incompetent.

While new areas are under scrutiny, there are few controversial proposals. Whether the committee has served to ethically educate the research community, as Professor Joel Porte, another member of the committee, suggested, or whether there is simply no longer any interest in deception experiments, decisions on ethics of human experimentation are easier than they have been in the past. In 1960, Professor Stanley Milgram of Yale embarked on a study of "obedience to authority" which was later to arouse much moral outrage. Under the pretense that he was studying the effect of punishment on learning, Milgram had subjects shock a "student" (actually a member of the experimental team) when the "student" erred in a prescribed task. Although the "student" never actually received a shock, the subjects were asked to administer the punishment in increasing voltages. The voltages were labeled "slight shock," "very strong shock," "danger: severe shock," and so on, ending with the label "XXX". A high proportion of the subjects actually worked up to administering an "XXX" shock, even though they heard the "student" screaming.

The Milgram experiment was clearly deceptive, and the subjects were hardly competent to give their informed consent. Yet, the experiment was conducted. No proposal like this has ever come up before the Standing Committee. Six of the 12 committee members were asked whether Milgram could conduct his experiment today at Harvard. Of the five who felt they could answer, four indicated they would approve it, with firm qualifications about the selection of the subjects and their post-experimental handling.

Recently the jurisdiction or the committee has grown to include projects not previously considered experiments. For example, a group proposal was required for students in a psychology class who were writing biographies of people they knew, because those people were considered subjects.

These four committee members approached the issue by attempting to weigh the costs and the benefits of the experiment. Professor Regina Yando said she approved of deception only in cases where there was "serious, important information" to be obtained. Others also acknowledged the costs to the subjects, yet felt these were outweighed by the benefits in increased knowledge made possible by the experiment.

Although no comparable proposal has ever come up, the committee's qualified acceptance of Milgram's procedure tells much about its values. Professor Sheldon White acknowledged that Harvard's committee was probably "more on the side of the researcher" than the equivalent committees at Berkeley and Stanford. One committee member who was concerned about the possible harm to Milgram's subjects felt research could be sufficiently important to outweigh this damage--she felt the world's pressing problems require knowledge, and consequently research.

The days when experimenters could do what they wanted are gone. Although the committee is quite cautious in the areas of confidentiality, privacy and legality, if a situation came up in which they felt the research was valuable enough, they would probably allow the risk of much possible harm. In the area of human experimentation, morality is becoming bureaucratized, and ethics institutionalized. Research is king. Like an over-anxious mother, Harvard's watchdog committee examines, modifies and then approves of everything that comes its way. Fortunately there are no Milgrams in the research community.