The Morality of Medical Experimentation on Prisoners Essay

Medicine is one of the most glorified of all sciences for its reputation of saving lives. The medical advancements we have made in the last few centuries have prolonged our lifespan considerably, reduced much unnecessary suffering, and given many of us with genetic disorders a chance to lead a normal life.

However, like most things glorified, medicine has its dark side, for such advancements were not made without tremendous sacrifice and experimentation. Experimentation, specifically human experimentation, is necessary in order to improve medical treatments for many human specific diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease and HIV/AIDS.Through the process of trial and error, results are often disastrous in regards to human experimentation; the intended effect becomes trivial, and a miscalculation or unintended effect contributes to the serious injury of a patient, sometimes even resulting in death. It has been suggested that because of the risk involved in human experimentation, prisoners would make ideal candidates to participate in this form of medical progress for their lack of significance, their debt to society, and even their obligation to past generations, to name a few.This paper will argue that this view is seriously flawed and that forcing medical experimentation onto prisoners, or coercing them into participating, can under no circumstances be morally acceptable. Kantian ethics argues that individuals, or in this case prisoners, have the prima facie right to volunteer for medical experiments, because they inherently have the right to self determination. [i] Although this is a true statement, prisoners can never truly volunteer for a medical experiment because of the numerous factors which inhibit their ability to make informed, voluntary choices in regards to consenting to the experiments in question. ii] Volunteering must, under all circumstances, be an independent choice free from persuasion and obligation.

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These independent choices are made more difficult for prisoners, for they have very few self-governed aspects of their own life. In prison, there are officials who tell prisoners when to sleep, eat, and even exercise. Prisoners are contained in a controlled environment to restrain them from acting on their own free will.After all, if this were not the case, prison would be a very chaotic place, and rehabilitation would be nearly futile. For these reasons, it is highly unlikely, if not impossible, for prisoners to volunteer for a medical experiment while providing informed voluntary consent. It is of the utmost importance to receive an informed, voluntary consent from prisoners before proceeding with any sort of medical experiment.

This is important for the prisoners so that they become aware of what they are getting themselves into.A prisoner must maintain control of what happens to his or her body, and in order to do this, must be aware of all the circumstances pertaining to any given experiment. Without being informed of all the potential risks involved in an experiment, as well as the purpose of the experimentation, they will have no good cause of action, regardless of whether the outcome of the experiment is positive or negative. [iii] Having this knowledge will allow an individual to withdraw from the experiment if need be, which is very important, considering all the risks involved.Additionally, volunteering in a medical experiment can be considered a very noble gesture. Self sacrifice for the greater good is what many consider to be an honor, much like giving blood. Blood donors in general are intellectual people with a good understanding of the importance of giving blood.

They do this out of their own free will, primarily to help save lives, and not out of obligation. Prisoners and good citizens alike are never coerced into giving blood, and henceforth shouldn’t be coerced into medical experimentation.Coercing prisoners into human experimentation for whatever reason can never be ethically justified, on the basis that coercing someone into a potentially harmful situation would be inhumane. From the early 1950s to the mid 1970s, the Philadelphia Holmesburg Prison was used as a laboratory for an assortment of medical experiments. In exchange for a few dollars, inmates became guinea pigs for everything from skin moisturizers, detergents, and perfumes to far more lethal substances, such as radioactive isotopes, dioxin, and even chemical warfare agents. iv] This is one of many examples provided by past experience demonstrating the atrocities that can result from unethical medical practices.

Though these prisoners were compensated financially for their time, if a few dollars can even be considered compensation for what they endured, they were coerced into “volunteering” for these experiments by their circumstances. The money paid out to these prisoners was by far less than they should have received.The prisoners were persuaded to accept the small payoff that they did for the experiments they endured because of their circumstances. Prisoners often have very little or no money, and can easily be taken advantage of in this respect. Oftentimes, prisoners who serve long prison sentences become victim to what has become known as institutionalized syndrome, or “learned helplessness”. [v] Prisoners can be easily taken advantage of because of their powerless situations, especially prisoners who are facing life sentences behind bars.

Many factors can contribute to a prisoner’s vulnerability to persuasion, such as lack of education, ignorance and incompetence. [vi] Being less capable of making a voluntary and informed decision about whether or not to engage in these medical experiments makes prisoners far less viable candidates for medical experimentation than citizens who exist outside the prison system. It is not only immoral, but unfair to take advantage of people in a situation where they have little or no control over their own lives.Some advocates for medical experimentation on prisoners believe that shortening a prisoner’s sentence in exchange for their cooperation in medical experimentation would be a good idea, and would in effect save money, which could be used to further the development of medicine. Undoubtedly, those who have suffered at the hands of these inmates would feel this argument to be considerably unfair, given the circumstances.

Consider a serious offender, who has seriously damaged a victim or society as a whole, and hasn’t had sufficient time to become rehabilitated.In exchange for participation in a medical experiment, this convict could return to the streets and continue to wreak havoc on the community. This would in turn actually cost the city more money in repairing damages done to the community than it would have spent financially compensating an ordinary citizen to participate in a medical experiment. Furthermore, governments are notorious for making money disappear, which is to say that the money originally saved by shortening a prisoner’s sentence wouldn’t even necessarily go towards the research and development of medicine. vii] Aside from the financial aspect of this argument, this would also be a form of coercion, which is unacceptable in regards to medical experimentation. Advocates in favour of medical experimentation on prisoners argue that prisoners have just as much of a debt to repay to past generations for medical advancements as the rest of society does.

The real question at hand is what obligation do we have to past generations to repay this so called “debt” for the medical advancements they made? There have been many sacrifices made by past generations in egards to medical experimentation which have provided us with many cures and treatments to diseases still around today. Without these sacrifices, we would be more susceptible to these diseases such as the measles, chicken pox, and even the flu. [viii] More importantly, the sacrifices past generations made to further the progressions of medical sciences were not intentionally done for the welfare of future generations, but instead for their own self interest. If cures and treatments were not developed for the diseases plaguing past generations, then many more people would have died.

Furthering the development of medicine to develop treatments for these diseases was crucial to the very survival of these generations, which means these developments were clearly made to by past generations to help themselves. We do not have an obligation to past generations to advance medical science for the simple reason that we have an obligation to ourselves. Human beings are ends in themselves, and should not be treated as the means to someone else’s end according to Kantian ethics. ix] We have an obligation to ourselves and to our own well being above and beyond the well being of other individuals. Making prisoners participate in medical experimentation on the basis of having an obligation to repay this so called “debt” is unreasonable, because the progress of medicine was not made specifically for the benefit of these prisoners. Enthusiasts who support the notion of medical experimentation on prisoners suggest they should be forced into medical experimentation against their will.

Those who support this argument believe that prisoners owe a debt to society, and are obliged to participate in medical experiments to ensure reparation for the harm done to the community. The main argument against this view is the same for capital punishment, for not all people who are guilty go to jail, and not all people who go to jail are guilty. The judicial system is not flawless, and to force potentially innocent inmates into medical experimentation would be a cruel and unusual punishment for a crime not even committed.Furthermore, even those prisoners who are guilty still have some rights, and this sort of unethical treatment would be inhumane to say the least. In many cases, prisoners who are experimented on are mistreated because of the stigma they are associated with, that they have somehow wronged the community. A good example of this are the atrocities that occurred during World War II in concentration camps, where doctors performed horrific experiments on prisoners, which often resulted in death. x] If we begin solely performing medical experiments on prisoners, enthusiasts claim we could spare the lives of people who are more productive to society.

They believe that by using prisoners, we would avoid using more productive members of society or even more innocent people. This would maintain a nice, healthy balance within a community, because all those prisoners who were serving time behind bars would now be contributing to the advancement of medical sciences.Using this reasoning can be dangerous, for if we start making such exceptions, there is nothing preventing us from using people who do not make exceptional contributions to society for medical experimentation. [xi] For example, people who make lower salaries, children who do not get good grades, or even people who do not have fully functional vehicles. After all, those with older cars often stall traffic, and people with lower salaries typically make fewer contributions to the economy than those with higher salaries, so in essence, these people are all perfect candidates for medical experimentation.This argument is clearly unsound, for if we begin using prisoners for medical experimentation, there would be no end to the bias that would occur in finding other seemingly unproductive members of society to help progress medicine. Prisoners simply do not make good candidates for medical experimentation. They have poor comprehension of the risks involved, the purpose of the experiments and the health implications associated with it.

Given their situation, they are extremely vulnerable to their superiors, which leave them susceptible to very unethical medical practices as has been discussed in this paper.Not to mention, that history has clearly demonstrated that using prisoners for experimental purposes has never proven to be an ethically sound plan of action. Seeing as the best candidates would be those individuals with the most knowledge regarding the experiment, perhaps the scientists themselves would make the best candidates. [xii] Human experimentation is necessary in order to achieve medical progression, and that being said, there will undoubtedly be sacrifices made. It is up to us to make the most ethical choices during this process, to maximize our progress, and minimize our losses.