Bioethics Blogs

Protecting He-Man Subjects

After frustrating encounters with IRBs concerning two research projects, sociologists Liberty Walther Barnes and Christin L. Munsch argue that “IRBs are gendered institutions in which members base their decisions on culturally dominant, normative images of women and men.”

[Liberty Walther Barnes and Christin L. Munsch, “The Paradoxical Privilege of Men and Masculinity in Institutional Review Boards,” Feminist Studies 41, no. 3 (2015): 594–622, doi:10.15767/feministstudies.41.3.594.]

Barnes and Munsch set out to study men, not ethics reviewers. But, they report, their “research programs were perceived by IRBs to expose men’s private failures, personal feelings, and vulnerabilities. By proposing such topics, we inadvertently conducted an ethno-methodological study of IRBs,” with each IRB letter revealing the assumptions and anxieties of the members and staff of the eight IRBs to whom they submitted protocols.

Boys Don’t Cry

Barnes wanted to understand the experience of male infertility through participant observation and interviews with members of an infertility education and advocacy organization. Similar work about women had flown through IRBs, but not this study, in large part because the IRB was worried that the men might cry during the interviews.

During a telephone conversation with one IRB analyst, the first author learned that what she had initially listed as a study benefit—the opportunity for men to share their feelings about infertility—the IRB perceived as a risk. Per the analyst’s instructions, the informed consent forms were revised to read: “Should you feel uncomfortable for any reason, I will immediately stop the interview. You will have the option to terminate the interview, and/or have any particular answer expunged from the record.” This is fairly common verbiage for IRB consent forms.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.