Bioethics News

Is There a Duty to Participate in Biospecimen Research?

July 6, 2017

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In an essay in the May-June 2017 Hastings Center Report, Holly Fernandez Lynch and Michelle N. Meyer assess the impact of the revised Common Rule on biospecimen research. They believe that the proposed “broad consent” approach – which involves participants agreeing to the storage of blood and other biological samples for subsequent use in a broad range of research projects –will rarely be used because of practical challenges in implementing it. In addition, they argue that ethical justifications are not robust enough to encourage researchers to use broad consent. To justify this claim, they write, “Many have argued that there is a duty based in justice and reciprocity to allow one’s biospecimens to be used in this way.” My concern is with the ethical calculus they describe and its use of the idea that people have a duty to participate in medical research.

Bioethicists debate whether there is a duty to participate and how it impacts ethical decision-making. Arguments for the duty to participate have been grounded in both beneficence and justice, but justice is the primary justification being offered here. The justice argument is that since everyone can benefit from medical research then everyone has an obligation to participate. This obligation is most often framed as a prima facie obligation—if no other duty or obligation conflicts, then one should participate in research. In many ways, biospecimen research is the perfect case for a duty to participate. It is a low-risk, potentially high-reward type of research, especially in the case of specimens remaining after a medical test or treatment.

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.