Research Involving “Vulnerable Populations”

A Critical Analysis

Authored by: Toby Schonfeld

The Routledge Companion to Bioethics

Print publication date:  December  2014
Online publication date:  December  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415896665
eBook ISBN: 9780203804971
Adobe ISBN: 9781136644849


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Much of the contemporary context of research ethics can be understood as a response to the United States Public Health Service Syphilis Study becoming public knowledge. In this study, 400 black men with untreated syphilis from rural Alabama were recruited to participate in a research study that would last 40 years (Jones 1993). The public outcry about this study was substantial, but some of the most scathing criticism centered around the notion that these research participants were particularly vulnerable: They were economically depressed and therefore had strong motivation to participate in order to garner additional income (and later, burial money for their families), they were uneducated and therefore had difficulty understanding the study, and they had little access to healthcare and therefore were likely to agree to participate simply to have access to healthcare professionals (Jones 1993; Reverby 2009).

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