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Scholarship by Lisa Eckenwiler, associate professor of philosophy and co-director of the Institute for Ethics and Public Affairs at Old Dominion University, has helped to shape a key point of the new report, "Ethical Considerations for Research Involving Prisoners," from the National Academies' Institute of Medicine.

The 200-page report cites a 2001 article by Eckenwiler as a cornerstone of its recommendation that "collaborative responsibility" be emphasized in regulations pertaining to research involving prisoners. This is one of five main recommendations of the report.

Eckenwiler's research includes a focus on justice as it applies to research with humans. She is interested in such things as access to research for under-included groups-such as women-and the ethical review process for research.

Her collaborative responsibility proposals call for representatives of research-subject populations to be included in the planning, ethical review, implementation and oversight of research projects.

The 17-person committee that produced the report, which was published in mid-July, had been asked by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Research Protections to review 30-year-old regulations for research involving prisoners.

After months of study, the committee found itself facing something of a paradox.

On one hand, the report says, the committee's investigations established a clear need for more protections for prisoners who are prospective research subjects. In fact, the recent large increase in prisoner population in the United States and the large proportion of disadvantaged and sick (HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C) prisoners suggested vast vulnerability that may justify a ban on prisoner research, according to the report.

On the other hand, committee members were told by the prisoners they interviewed that-in the words of the report-"access to research may be critical to improve the health of prisoners and the conditions in which they live."

A solution was found in Eckenwiler's proposals that would invite prisoners and prison personnel to be partners in the research rather than coerced subjects, or mere guinea pigs.

The report says Eckenwiler has found that "determination to be impartial or to put oneself in the shoes of a particular kind of research subject will be inadequate in many circumstances." Her work also points to clashes between privilege and oppression in research circumstances that require steps to bolster the influence of the research subjects, especially when they are members of disadvantaged groups.

"The ethical problems associated with research involving prisoners will manifest themselves differently in each correctional setting," the report says. "The one-size-fits-all approach characterized by a focus on informed consent cannot adequately address the unique concerns presented at each setting. Thus, all relevant parties should be involved (prisoners, correctional officers, medical staff, administrators) when creating and implementing a research protocol."

Eckenwiler is the author of "Moral Reasoning and the Review of Research with Human Subjects," which appeared in the Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal in 2001. The article examines the model of moral reasoning used by the institutional review boards that evaluate ethical issues raised by research.

"It is always an honor to have your work cited by others," Eckenwiler said, "and it's especially exciting as a philosopher working in bioethics to contribute to the policy process."

She said that prisoners are categorized in research regulations as "vulnerable groups," along with women, fetuses and children, because of a sad history of exploitation of vulnerable research subjects. This includes Nazi experiments on war prisoners and the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which poor and illiterate Alabamans were lied to about their diagnosis and, in some cases, denied treatment so researchers could document the ravages of syphilis. The Tuskegee study did not end until 1972, when accounts of its abuses appeared in newspapers and on television.

This article was posted on: July 27, 2006

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