The Ethics of Research in Lower Income Countries: Double Standards Are Not the Problem


David S. Wendler, The Journal of Clinical Ethics 28, no. 3 (Fall 2017): 239-46.


Discussion of the ethics of clinical trials in lower income countries has been dominated by concern over double standards. Most prominently, clinical trials of interventions that are less effective than the worldwide best treatment methods typically are not permitted in higher income countries. Commentators conclude that permitting such trials in lower income countries involves an ethical double standard.  Despite significant attention to this concern, and its influence over prominent guidelines for research in lower income countries, there has been little analysis of what constitutes an ethical double standard in clinical research. The present article attempts to address this gap in the literature. This analysis finds that ethical double standards involve a kind of disrespect, and yields a three-step decision procedure for evaluating when trials of less than the worldwide best methods raise this concern. Application of this procedure reveals that permitting these trials in lower income countries rarely involves an ethical double standard. Instead, the real challenge is determining when clinical trials of interventions that are less effective than the worldwide best represent a permissible and effective response to differences in access to healthcare between higher income and lower income countries. To protect research subjects, without blocking clinical trials that have the potential to improve health in lower income countries, research review committees and other stakeholders should focus on this issue, not on ethical double standards.


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