By Celia Fisher, PhD
Federal regulations prohibiting scientists from using prisoners to study health problems not directly related to the causes and conditions of their incarceration are now threatened by the same morally ambiguous forces undermining other U.S. regulations designed to protect the public. As reported in The New York Times, to resolve scientific disagreements over the health risk of salt consumption, a group of researchers recently proposed that incarcerated inmates, who unlike the public do not have control over their diets, would be the ideal subjects for a randomized control trial addressing the “salt wars.”
Developed in response to the medical research atrocities involving Nazi prisoners, since 1974, U.S. regulations have protected prisoners from scientific exploitation by limiting studies to conditions causing incarceration or particularly affecting prisoners as a class, and prohibiting research designed solely to benefit the U.S. population in general. These regulations are meant to protect prisoners, whose freedom of choice is severely limited, from scientific exploitation and coercion resulting from vulnerabilities caused by the constraints of their incarceration. Those in favor of the research argue that given the relatively low health risks of the study, if investigators are careful and gain the full support of prison authorities, incarcerated persons are capable of giving informed and voluntary consent to their participation and that it actually provides prisoners an opportunity to give back to society.
However, this argument represents a slippery slope into the same moral morass that has acquiesced to the current weakening of other federal regulations designed to protect public and environmental health. Privileging the potential public health benefits of a study over protections for vulnerable persons, even when risks are judged as minimal, is a gateway to future decisions prioritizing majority health over individual rights.
Research resolving the “salt wars” in favor of salt intake would certainly benefit the salt industry and there has been little discussion on whether there would be corporate funding of such research or the extent to which decisions by the National Institute of Health (NIH) to approve the study would be influenced by lobbyists. In response to the attacks on science invigorated by the Trump presidency, scientists have been marching to demonstrate that research-based policies are a public good. Let’s hope that these sentiments extend to the protection of prisoners as one of those public goods so that science is not the latest victim of Trumpian morality.
Celia B. Fisher, Ph.D. is the Fordham University Marie Ward Doty University Chair in Ethics and Director of the Center for Ethics Education. In addition to chairing the 2002 revision of the American Psychological Association’s Ethics Code, Fisher’s Decoding the Ethics Code: A Practical Guide for Psychologists, is now in its fourth edition from Sage Publications.