Intended for healthcare professionals

Education And Debate

A new look at international research ethics

BMJ 2000; 321 doi: (Published 30 September 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;321:824
  1. Solomon R Benatar, visiting professor (,
  2. Peter A Singer, Sun Life chair and directorb
  1. a Department of Medicine and Bioethics Centre, University of Cape Town, Observatory 7925, Cape, South Africa
  2. b Joint Centre for Bioethics, University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5G L4
  1. Correspondence to:

    Editorial by Lansang

    The normal “standard of care” against which new interventions are tested in medical research has not been formally defined. It is usually taken to mean the “best proved treatment” for any condition under investigation in a trial. We reject the arbitrariness of this notion of the standard of care and offer a more comprehensive alternative. Use of this new standard invokes a new approach to international research ethics that focuses on reducing inequalities in global health.

    The debate on what constitutes a fair and reasonable standard of care for subjects in developing countries who participate in clinical trials has been rekindled by critics of studies on the transmission of HIV.1-3 They argued that placebo controlled trials of new regimens to prevent the vertical transmission of HIV were unethical because they included a placebo arm rather than “the best proven treatment” available in developed countries. Some commentators considered the criticisms to be unfounded4-6 and associated with imperialistic attitudes.7

    The debate made it clear that the high standards of research aspired to have not been adequately defined. It was also marred by simplistic notions of ethics. Although there was justified concern that pressure from the US Food and Drug Administration could “dilute” the Declaration of Helsinki, critics also presumed that whether a trial was ethical could simply be deduced from the text of a declaration. But declarations—such as the Declaration of Helsinki, governing international research ethics—are like constitutions, needing interpretation. Determining what is ethical goes beyond merely following prescriptions and requires moral reasoning: consideration of all relevant aspects of the case in its context, weighing and balancing competing moral requirements, and developing justifiable conclusions.

    Although more mature insight is gradually emerging into the complexity associated with the ethics of research in developing countries, the debate remains …

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