The limitations of the traditional historiography of the ethical regulation of biomedical research are becoming increasingly well recognized. A simplistic history has been used to justify a simplistic policy, in the elaboration of regulatory instruments associated with a bureaucracy of administration and enforcement that has acquired its own material interests in self-perpetuation and jurisdictional expansion. The official history of institutionalized ethical regulation sees a clear and self-evident line of descent from the Nazi experiments of World War II to the various legal and quasi-legal instruments that now govern most scientific and, increasingly, social scientific practice. Without regulatory interventions, it is claimed, researchers will revert to barbarism.
Many of us point to the Nuremberg Code as the first formal attempt to govern the ethical conduct of human research. While the atrocities committed by the Nazi scientists are no less horrific, this paper by Robert Dingwall and Vienna Rozelle paints quite a different picture of the early evolution of the governance of ethics in bio-medicine. The lessons and implications should cause us pause. Perhaps regulation is not a safeguard against ethically compromised research and we need to stop referring to the inhuman acts of the Nazis to justify our current human research ethics arrangements.
The publication of further analyses of the pre-World War II German experience provides an additional resource for the critical examination of the claims being made about the importance of formal regulation in the maintenance of ethical standards in biomedical research. This body of work has documented the rise of attempts at ethical research governance in Germany from the late nineteenth century through to the 1930s. In so doing, it may seem to provide us with an opportunity to explore the limits of regulation. Why did it fail to protect the victims of the Nazi medical experiments? Why did it seemingly attract so little international interest, despite Germany’s leading role in science and biomedicine over much of this period? However, as a number of influential historians of late nineteenth- and early twentieth- century Germany have observed, the study of this period has suffered from the imposition of narrative arcs, influenced by sociology or political science, that see it only as the precursor to the disaster of the Nazi regime. No actor at the time consciously sought this end for their actions: even the Nazi leadership sought power rather than defeat. Accounts that find a logic in the events from the late nineteenth century to the end of World War II may overlook the unintended consequences of actors dealing with contingent events on the basis of partial information interpreted according to what were contemporaneously considered valid knowledge or theories. It is important, then, to avoid constructing an equally simplistic counter-narrative about the general ineffectiveness of regulation.
Dingwall, R and Rozelle, V (2011) The ethical governance of German physicians, 1890–1939: Are there Lessons from History? Journal of Policy History 23(1): 29-52. http://irep.ntu.ac.uk/id/eprint/16649/1/205167_7323%20Dingwall%20Publisher.pdf