J Med Ethics 30:88-91 doi:10.1136/jme.2002.000166
  • Research ethics

Research ethics committees and paternalism

  1. S J L Edwards,
  2. S Kirchin,
  3. R Huxtable
  1. University of Bristol, Bristol, UK
  1. Correspondence to:
 S J L Edwards
 Centre for Ethics in Medicine, University of Bristol, 73 St Michael’s Hill, Bristol BS2 8BH, UK;
  • Received 10 April 2002
  • Accepted 2 June 2003
  • Revised 9 May 2003


In this paper the authors argue that research ethics committees (RECs) should not be paternalistic by rejecting research that poses risk to people competent to decide for themselves. However it is important they help to ensure valid consent is sought from potential recruits and protect vulnerable people who cannot look after their own best interests. The authors first describe the tragic deaths of Jesse Gelsinger and Ellen Roche. They then discuss the following claims to support their case: (1) competent individuals are epistemologically and ethically in the best position to say which risks are reasonable for them, so RECs should be no more restrictive than the “normal” constraints on people taking risks with themselves; (2) RECs do not judge individual competence (that is for researchers and psychiatrists); (3) individual liberty is mostly limited by what serves the public interest, and RECs do not determine public interest; (4) RECs may have a paternalistic role in preventing exploitation of competent people vulnerable to the use of incentives, and in protecting the interests of incompetent people; however, (5) the moral and political authority of RECs has not been established in this respect.