Letters Biobank research and consent

Broad consent is informed consent

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d6900 (Published 01 November 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d6900
  1. Mark Sheehan, Oxford NIHR Biomedical Research Centre ethics fellow1
  1. 1Ethox Centre, Department of Public Health, University of Oxford, Oxford OX3 7LG, UK
  1. mark.sheehan{at}ethox.ox.ac.uk

The authors claim that the risks associated with biobanks are minimal and greatly outweighed by the benefits.1 Some people would disagree.2 But even if we could agree about the risks and benefits, different people would weigh them differently: for some, control of personal information is very important and for others less so. For this reason, the authors’ argument seems to me an unproductive route to take, even though I sympathise with it.

It is a mistake to suggest that broad consent cannot be informed consent and constitutes a breach of autonomy.3 Many ordinary decisions that we make are properly informed and exemplify the appropriate exercise of autonomy, even though they do not involve “specific” consent. We often decide to allow others to make decisions for us. If I am late getting to the restaurant I might ask one of the other diners to order for me: “You decide for me. I don’t eat seafood or sprouts.”

These decisions are perfectly acceptable autonomous decisions, but the information that makes them informed is different from the specific individual consent case. In broad consent cases, the relevant information is about the person (or institution) who will make the decision for me. In biobanking, the relevant information might be about the overall goals of the research supported by the biobank and details of the decision making processes within the institution—how are decisions made about suitable research and by whom?

Broad consent is a perfectly legitimate form of informed consent. We do not need a broader notion of autonomy, we simply need a proper understanding of the one we have.


Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d6900


  • Competing interests: None declared.


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