Judith C S Redman
The compulsory presence of the Category D members on Australian Human Research Ethics Committees (HRECs) can be controversial. Category D used to be termed ‘minister of religion’ and most HRECs recruited ordained Christian ministers to fill these roles, although at least one of the Monash University HREC Category D members has been a rabbi (recruited by me). People question the need for a ‘religious perspective’ on HRECs, especially on those that regularly look at research concerning issues like abortion, contraception or euthanasia, or stem-cell research where ‘the Church’ is seen to have negative stances. I am a Uniting Church minister and a long-term university chaplain, which makes me a prime target for recruitment to the Category D position on university HRECs. I am currently in my 18th year as a Category D appointment, serving my fourth university. Clearly, it is something I find interesting and rewarding and I would like to offer some comments on the nature of the position.
First, referring to the category as ‘minister of religion’ is misleading, because the role is not to provide a religious perspective per se. ‘Minister of religion’ was included as a category (along with lay woman, lay man and member external to the institution) in the First Report by the NH&MRC Working Party On Ethics in Medical Research published in 1982 (p 20) and incorporated into the first National Statement published in 1983. In the 1999 version of the National Statement, the position was listed as: ‘at least one member who is a minister of religion, or a person who performs a similar role in a community such as an Aboriginal elder’ (NHMRC, 1999, p 16 – emphasis mine), thus hinting that it was not the minister’s religious perspective that was being sought. In fact, even when Australian society was far less multi-faith than it is today, no one clergy-person could provide a representative religious perspective. The 2007 National Statement made the purpose more overt in describing the category as ‘at least one person who performs a pastoral care role in a community, for example, an Aboriginal elder, a minister of religion’ (NHMRC, 2007 p 81). This wording has carried across to the current revision. (NHMRC, 2018 p 87).
What, then, is it that Category D members of HRECs bring to meetings? What is pastoral care? Finding a simple definition is somewhat challenging but Grove (2004, p. 34) defines it as ‘all measures to assist an individual person or a community reach their full potential, success and happiness in coming to a deeper understanding of their own humanness’. Pastoral carers are not therapists, but they do come into contact with human beings at high and low points of their lives. Often, however, they see more every-day lows than those that typically cause people to make appointments with therapists – and very few people will pay a therapist to share joys. They do, however, come to congregational clergy and Aboriginal elders to share the joy of the birth of a child and to mark other rites of passage within the life of their communities. Pastoral carers thus have insights into how people make meaning in their lives that many other people are not privileged to share. They can therefore offer broader perspectives on how participants might respond to some kinds of research than can many other HREC members.
Second, ‘the Church’ does not have a uniform perspective on biomedical ethical issues. While some denominations have specific stances on abortion, contraception, euthanasia, stem-cell research and so on, others do not. In my own denomination, most forms of contraception are widely accepted although some, such as the ‘morning after pill’ would divide members and clergy alike. Abortion, euthanasia and stem-cell research are all controversial, with Uniting Church members and clergy holding a range of opinions very close to the spread found in the wider community. It is therefore not possible to assume that any given Christian minister of religion will be against this kind of research as a matter of principle. This would also be true for pastoral carers from other world religions. Further, it is my experience as someone who has worked in a multicultural and multifaith university environment for several decades that while the things that divide religions are the things we notice most, we have far more in common than things that divide us. A fundamental part of most religions is an attempt to help people to understand what it means to be human, so someone with pastoral care experience from within a religious context can offer valuable insights into the human condition that are not bound by the teachings of her or his religion. They may well, for instance, have supported people making difficult decisions about biomedical ethical issues and have a better insight into whether the researchers have put appropriate measures in place for support of participants.
In addition, ministers of religion are not the only people on HRECs whose perspectives are shaped by religion. I have certainly known people serving in other roles on HRECs whose faith positions affect how they view some of the applications we are considering. The religious perspectives of Category D members are more likely to be overt, but any member of a HREC should declare a conflict of interest if s/he holds a faith/moral position that would not allow her/him to approve particular research no matter how well it complied with the National Statement. It is also quite likely that ministers of religion have studied ethics at a tertiary level as part of their ministry training.
Thus, I would argue that people with experience in providing pastoral care bring a unique and valuable perspective to the deliberations of HRECs, as long as they are selected with a little care. If you are responsible for recruiting members and biomedical research involving abortion, euthanasia, contraception or stem cell research and/or research around human sexuality and sexual orientation come up regularly in your business, you need to address the issues in your recruitment of Category D members. Although members of some religious groups are more likely to have problems with these issues, you cannot predict how a particular pastoral carer might react based on his or her religious group’s official policy. If you are replacing a Category D appointee or recruiting an extra one, the current one may be able to suggest colleagues that s/he thinks might be suitable. If you are setting up a new committee, the Category D appointees on nearby committees might have some ideas about suitable people. Some pastoral carers might even be willing to belong to more than one committee as long as the agendas are not too long and the meeting dates do not clash. In the end, however, you need to inform potential appointees about the kinds of issues you regularly deal with and ask them if they see any problem about their being able to assess these kinds of applications objectively. You also need to ensure that they understand that they are being recruited for their pastoral care experience not to provide a religious perspective. Taking these two steps should see your committee well served by your Category D appointments as they offer their particular perspectives on the applications before you.
We would like to build upon Judith’s excellent post about the pastoral position in future editions with similar commentaries about other positions. Please contact us on [email protected] to discuss.
Grove, M. (2004). The Three R’s of Pastoral Care: Relationships, Respect and Responsibility. Pastoral Care in Education, 22(2), 34-38. doi:10.1111/j.0264-3944.2004.00261.x.
National Health and Medical Research Council (Australia) (1982). First Report By NHMRC Working Party on Ethics In Medical Research: Research in Humans. National Health and Medical Research Council, Canberra, ACT.
National Health and Medical Research Council (Australia) (1999). National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Research involving Humans. National Health and Medical Research Council, Canberra, ACT.
National Health and Medical Research Council (Australia) (2007). National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research. National Health and Medical Research Council, Canberra, ACT.
National Health and Medical Research Council (Australia) (2018). National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research, updated 2018. National Health and Medical Research Council, Canberra, ACT.
Rev Dr Judith C S Redman, Chaplaincy Coordinator, Charles Sturt and La Trobe Universities, Albury-Wodonga Campuses | [email protected]
This post may be cited as:
Redman, JCS (27 March 2019) Why do we need Category D appointments on HRECs and how should we find suitable people? Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/why-do-we-need-category-d-appointments-on-hrecs-and-how-should-we-find-suitable-people