Abusive experimentation on humans

Visualization of narrower problems
Experimental exposure of humans to radiation
Irresponsible research using human subjects
Medical experimentation on institutionalized subjects
Unethical experiments with radioactive materials
Forced non-therapeutic research on people

Human subjects for experimentation (in order to acquire knowledge rather than improve the subject's condition) may be coerced into participation or participating unknowingly. Scientific researchers may be able to obtain institutional facilities for research on humans who are not always in a position to give their free consent. Subjects may be ill-informed of potential effects; they may be unable to end their participation once the experiment has begun, even though there is a chance of permanent damage; and they may be unable to receive compensation should they be injured.


Research has been conducted using mentally retarded children, prisoners, or military personnel without adequate regard for the social, moral and ethical implications. Because of the controversial nature of such research methods they tend to be used in an atmosphere of total or semi-secrecy.

Past examples of specific abusive experimentation on humans include experiments on twins, dwarves and pregnant women in Nazi concentration camps; and Unit 731, a Japanese biological warfare centre during World War II, where experiments were carried out on Asian and allied prisoners. Soldiers have been experimental subjects in experiments on atomic bomb testing. Moral codes to be followed when human subjects are used for experimentation have been adopted by the Nuremberg Tribunal, the Helsinki Declaration, and USA, UK and French medical associations.

The American government claims that radioactive medical tests on unknowing subjects (around 1,000) during the Cold War in the USA have for the most part involved little or no risk. There are a number of American experiments which are more dubious, including radiation of prisoner genitals, plutonium or radioactive iodine injection and feeding radioactive material to mentally handicapped people. The tests were all done on people the Atomic Energy Commission considered "disposable": black newborns, prisoners, mental patients, indigents, the terminally ill, and black and pregnant women who were soon to give up their children for adoption.

More than 43,300 American military and industrial sites may have suffered radioactive contamination.

The US government continued experimenting on ill-informed troops and prisoners, as well as unsuspecting civilians, well into the 1970s. In one example, bacteria assumed harmless were released in airports and subways.

In 1993 it was confirmed that Americans were used in radiation experiments in the 1940s without being informed of the health risks. It was claimed that some 800 experiments on 600 individuals were conducted properly. In 1994 evidence surfaced that parental consent forms for radiation experiments run in the 1960's did not mention radiation. Between 1944 and 1961 in the USA there were about 250 experiments involving deliberate release of radioactive materials into the atmosphere. In addition, the American government conducted 204 secret underground nuclear tests between 1963 and 1990, whose potential effects can only be guessed at.

In high nuclear fall-out areas in Utah, childhood leukaemia rates are 2.5 times the American average.


1. The Nuremberg Code requires voluntary consent and protection of subjects from "even remote possibilities of injury, disability or death". There is also the Hippocratic standard, "First, do no harm".

2. There are a frightening number of studies that have failed to meet the most basic ethical requirement: namely, telling subjects what the experiment involves and what it is trying to discover. This is disturbing even in cases where no physical harm ensued.

3. Scientific knowledge has its own value in the domain of medical science no less than in other scientific domains, such as, for example, physics, chemistry, cosmology and psychology. It is a value which must certainly not be minimized, a value existing quite independently of the usefulness or use of the acquired knowledge. Moreover, knowledge as such and the full understanding of any truth raise no moral objection. By virtue of this principle, research and the acquisition of truth for arriving at new, wider and deeper knowledge and understanding of the same truth are in themselves in accordance with the moral order. But this does not mean that all methods, or any single method, arrived at by scientific and technical research offers every moral guarantee. Nor, moreover, does it mean that every method becomes licit because it increases and deepens our knowledge. Sometimes it happens that a method cannot be used without injuring the rights of others or without violating some moral rule of absolute value. In such a case, although one rightly envisages and pursues the increase of knowledge, morally the method is not admissible. Why not? Because science is not the highest value, that to which all other orders of values-or in the same order of value, all particular values-should be subordinated. Science itself, therefore, as well as its research and acquisitions, must be inserted in the order of values. Here there are well defined limits which even medical science cannot transgress without violating higher moral rules. The confidential relations between doctor and patient, the personal right of the patient to the life of his body and soul in its psychic and moral integrity are just some of the many values superior to scientific interest. (Papal Writings, 14 September 1952).


1. The advantages of medical experimentation on institutionalized subjects are that: they are more easily available in large numbers in a compact geographical area; remain available over relatively longer periods of time with a lesser risk of drop-out; live under uniform living conditions which can be well controlled; can be subjected to as intense or prolonged observation as required; and in case of any adverse effects of the research procedures, there is a ready availability of emergency and other remedial and restitutive procedures.

2. We live in a world where small groups might be quite interested in creating generalized terror. It is necessary to conduct research to protect against such risks.

(D) Detailed problems