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Putting People First: A History of Research Protections

The biomedical research community has established a strong set of principles to guide the medical research process. These principles dictate research ethics, providing rules to make decisions about every part of research. They are carried out by specific regulations and individuals in the research community who oversee all aspects of the research process to assure these guidelines are followed. For more information see:

The information that follows from the National Cancer Institute provides a history of the important events and actions taken to develop our system of research ethics and oversight.

The History of Informed Consent and the System of Protections

Over the past half-century, the international and U.S. medical communities have taken numerous steps to protect people who take part in clinical research. The following timeline provides an overview of some of the key events that have contributed to the development of the current system.

1947 - The Nuremberg Code

Developed in response to the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi doctors who performed unethical experimentation during World War II, the Nuremberg Code was the first major international document to provide guidelines on research ethics. It made voluntary consent a requirement in clinical research studies, emphasizing that consent can be voluntary only if:

The Code also states that researchers should minimize risk and harm, make sure that risks do not significantly outweigh potential benefits, use appropriate study designs, and guarantee participants' freedom to withdraw at any time. The Nuremberg Code was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.

1964 - Declaration of Helsinki

At the 18th World Medical Assembly in Helsinki, Finland, the World Medical Association adopted 12 principles to guide physicians on ethical considerations related to biomedical research, known as the Declaration of Helsinki. It emphasizes the distinction between medical care that directly benefits the patient and research that may or may not provide direct benefit. These guidelines were revised at subsequent meetings in 1975 (Tokyo, Japan), 1983 (Venice, Italy), and 1989 (Hong Kong).

1974 - The National Research Act

The U.S. Congress signed the National Research Act into law, creating the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research. The Commission was charged with:

1. identifying the basic ethical principles that should govern medical research involving people, and then

2. recommending steps to improve the Regulations for the Protection of Human Subjects.

1979 - The Belmont Report

After four years of work, the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research issued The Belmont Report: Ethical Principles and Guidelines for the Protection of Human Subjects of Research. The report sets forth three principles underlying the ethical conduct of research:

1. respect for persons: recognizing the autonomy and dignity of individuals, and the need to protect those with diminished autonomy (i.e., impaired decision-making skills), such as children, the aged, and the disabled;

2. beneficence: an obligation to protect persons from harm by maximizing benefits and minimizing risks;

3. justice: fair distribution of the benefits and burdens of research.

The Belmont Report explains how these apply to research practices; for example, it identifies informed consent as a process that is essential to the principle of respect. In response to the report, both the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration revised their regulations on research studies that involve people.

1991 - Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects

This policy was adopted to ensure a uniform system of protections in all federal agencies and departments that conduct research.

Source: National Cancer Institute - A Guide to Understanding Informed Consent - History

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Last Reviewed: May 15, 2011

Nicole M Deming, JD, MA Nicole M Deming, JD, MA
Assistant Professor of Bioethics
School of Medicine
Case Western Reserve University