Ethics by Committee

By Noortje Jacobs

Ethics by Committee book cover
Added November 7, 2022

Ethics boards have become obligatory passage points in today's medical science, and we forget how novel they really are. The use of humans in experiments is an age-old practice that records show goes back to at least the third century BC and, since the early modern period, as a practice it has become increasingly popular. Yet, in most countries around the world, hardly any formal checks and balances existed to govern the communal oversight of experiments involving human subjects until at least the 1960s. Ethics by Committee traces the rise of ethics boards for human experimentation in the second half of the twentieth century. Using the Netherlands as a case-study, Noortje Jacobs shows how the authority of physicians to make decisions about clinical research gave way in most developed nations to formal mechanisms of communal decision-making that served to regiment the behavior of individual researchers. This historically unprecedented change in scientific governance came out of a growing international wariness of medical research in the decades after World War II. Research ethics committees were originally intended not only to make human experimentation more ethical but also to raise its epistemic quality. By examining complex negotiations over the appropriate governance of human subjects research, Ethics by Committee advances our understanding not only of the history of research ethics and the randomized controlled trial but also, more broadly, of how liberal democracies in the late twentieth century have sought to resolve public concerns over charged issues in medicine and science.

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