Bioethics Blogs

Research ethics during medical disruption

A couple years ago, I experienced first-hand the effects of political turmoil on research. My university was conducting epidemiological research involving sex workers in Antananarivo, Madagascar. Special clinics were being piloted for this stigmatized, hard-to-reach and vulnerable population. Then the political crisis of 2009 hit. Everything ground to a halt, including much of the activity in the hospitals where the research was taking place. The sudden upheaval in the routines of everyday life caused much confusion and disarray: what now?

A new publication in the Journal of Medical Ethics by House et. al. is therefore very welcome, because it covers some neglected ground. In the rare case that bioethicists discuss ethical challenges within politically unstable contexts, they tend to concentrate on the reliable delivery of health care. Instead, this article focuses on the conduct of health research when social life gets gnarly, and more specifically when medical services are disrupted, based on the authors’ experiences in Kenya. The authors make a useful three-way distinction between the ethics of not starting research, stopping it once it has started, and keeping on going in the face of communal strife.

The authors argue that the ethics of not starting research, and continuing it once it has started, are different. If the political upheaval is so disruptive that ethical standards of research cannot be upheld, research should wait. But an ongoing study may involve serious commitments and expectations, a relationship of trust between researchers and communities, and research participants may benefit from research-related interventions. Stopping an ongoing study requires deliberation with the local community and a careful collaborative weighing of options and trade-offs.

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.