The conduct of prior ethics review of human research projects helps to protect vulnerable groups or populations from potential negative impacts of research. Contemporary considerations in human research considers the concept of vulnerability in terms of access to research opportunities, impacts on the consenting process, selection bias, and the generalisability of results. Recent work questions the validity of using enumerated lists as a check box approach to protect research participants from exploitation. Through the use of broad categories to treat cohorts of human research participants as homogenous classes and label some participants as vulnerable merely because they are members of a particular class, some ethics reviewers have used the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research to strip individuals of their “ethical equality”. Labelling people as vulnerable does not help researchers or human research ethics committee members develop an understanding of the complexities of applying the principles of respect and of justice in ethical decision-making. Conversely, defining specific cohorts of research participants as needing nuanced ethical consideration, due to their vulnerable nature, may imply that other population groups need not be considered vulnerable. We contend that this assumption is erroneous. This paper explores the way that human research ethics guidance documents treat vulnerability within the Australian context and draws on contemporary discussion to focus an alternative perspective based on the principles in the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research for researchers and human research ethics committee members to consider.
Vulnerability, Human Research Ethics, Human Research Ethics Committee (HREC), IRB
Pieper, I.J., Thomson, C.J.H. (2020) Vulnerability in human research. Monash Bioethics Review. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40592-020-00110-4