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The Value of Informed Consent

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The Value of Informed Consent

All throughout history, science has pushed the boundaries on what is possible in this world. When thinking of a scientist, people tend to visualize a frail older man wearing lab coat with wild, graying hair while carrying an oddly shaped beaker of some colored liquid in his hand. One would imagine that he is pondering some complicated theorem, or simply mixing colorful solutions together in his lab. For many of us, we cannot imagine that he would ever do anything that could potentially harm others; not with all of the standards and codes that are in place today. In order for a scientist to experiment on another person in any way, they much first receive what is called “informed consent” from the subject. To do so, the scientist must inform the research subject of all possible risks, or any other information that could potentially affect their ability to make a knowledgeable decision as to whether or not they are willing to participate in the study. What many do not realize is that there was once a time when such rules did not exist. Prior to the establishment of human and civil rights, and even for some time afterwards, scientists have historically been willing to sacrifice whoever they needed to in order to quench their seemingly insatiable thirst for knowledge. Nearly 80 years ago, on January 30, 1933, the country of Germany appointed Adolf Hitler as chancellor. This date is recognized throughout the world as the beginning of the Holocaust. The Holocaust was the systematic, government sponsored eradication of the Jewish population of Europe (as well as Blacks, homosexuals, political enemies, and those who were mentally/physically handicapped). Hitler convinced the inhabitants of Germany that Jews were a threat to the well-being of the country and needed to be dealt with. He began putting various laws in place to restrict the freedoms of Jewish people in Germany, and they were treated as second class citizens. Before long, Hitler decided that it was necessary to remove all of the Germany’s Jewish people. He introduced a plan which he referred to as the “Final Solution”. The Nazis began to gather up all of those deemed as “undesirables” and send them off to concentration camps. It was in these camps that millions of people were tortured, forced to work, and eventually killed. While being forced to live in a concentration camp was undoubtedly more difficult than anyone living today could imagine, the conditions were arguably more nightmarish for the prisoners who were forced to become test subjects for scientists. Having already delegated the people living in camps as being less than human, no one ever bothered to find out the willingness of any of the participants. Among other things, subjects of these experiments were frozen to death, shot, poisoned, and infected with deadly diseases. Thousands of men, women, and children were killed in shockingly gruesome ways, often unnecessarily or even intentionally, while conducting these experiments. The prisoners were chosen not simply because they were imprisoned, but because there was nothing they could do or say to stop them from happening; none of these subjects had any power or control over the things that occurred around them. Even before the Holocaust, scientists have been known to take advantage of vulnerable groups, such as children, the mentally disabled, or people who simply did not know better. History has already shown us what can and will happen when there are no rules and regulations in place governing informed consent. While most people are moral, ethical beings, events such as the scientific experiments conducted during the Holocaust have taught us the harsh reality that not everyone can be trusted to do what is right. Everyone needs to be aware that they have the right to be informed of what is going on around them as well as their right to say no whenever they decide. We all must also understand the responsibilities we have towards those around us while in the role of a scientist or researcher. When it comes to science, what you don’t know or don’t understand can harm you in ways you never intended. Despite what some may say, ignorance is not always bliss.

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