Ethics of Prisoner Experiments Prisoner Experiments Prior Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

Ethics of Prisoner Experiments

Prisoner Experiments

Prior to the medical trial at Nuremberg physicians and scientists were largely free to conduct experiments on unsuspecting persons (Freyhofer, 2004, p. 9-10), including inmates inside America's prisons. When it was discovered that German physicians had been conducting inhumane experiments on death camp and concentration camp prisoners during WWII, the world was shocked that doctors were capable of such behavior. The American Military Tribunal in Nuremberg heard arguments from both the defense and prosecution for twenty three doctors and administrators accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The defense argued that the doctors' conduct was not a significant departure from past practices and any inhumanity was more a function of the ongoing hostilities. The judges on the tribunal saw it differently and created ethical guidelines for medical researchers, because the evidence presented in court revealed the Hippocratic Oath could not protect patients and prisoners from harm. These ethical principles became known as the Nuremberg Code.

Just one of the many inhumane experiments conducted by the Nazi doctors involved close to 200 prisoners being held at the Dachau death camp (Freyhofer, 2004, p. 27). In order to better understand the risks faced by pilots bailing out at high altitude, prisoners were placed into hypobaric chambers at low atmospheric pressure and then the pressure increased rapidly. Between seventy and eighty prisoners died during these experiments because of brain embolisms. The cause of death was determined by submerging prisoners in water and watching for air bubbles while dissecting the bodies; however, the cardiograms often indicated that the hearts were still beating during the dissection.

The Nuremberg Code was a response to such experiments. The first principle in the Code requires all subject participating in a study to do so voluntarily (HHS, 2005). To meet this guideline the subject cannot be coerced to participate in any way and must understand what will occur to them during the experiment (informed consent). The second principle requires the research to potentially benefit society in a meaningful way and that the experiments could not be performed without human subjects. There are several more guidelines in the Code, but these two represent the most basic ethical principles of subject autonomy and beneficence. Both were violated by the Nazi doctors because prisoners in concentration and death camps cannot be reasonably be viewed as having any autonomy. The Nazi doctors also violated the second principle, because they probably could have used animals instead.

The above discussion highlights the unique status of prisoners within human experimentation, because under most circumstances they lack autonomy. The Holmesburg State Prison in Pennsylvania had become a hotbed of human experimentation from the early 1950s to the mid-70s, in spite of the Nuremberg Code (Hornblum, 1998, p. 3-6). The U.S. Army wanted to test chemicals on human skin and researchers at the University of Pennsylvania were willing to help. One of the case examples provided by Allen Hornblum in his book Acres of Skin describes what an intelligent inmate faced when given the chance to participate. In 1964, prisoners were earning about 15 cents a day working in prison shops, but a prisoner could earn anywhere from $50 to $500 per month as a human guinea pig for the U.S. Army. Within the prison's economic system, earnings like those were coercive and therefore violated the Nuremberg Code.

Several of the defendants at the Nuremberg Medical Trial cited the numerous experiments conducted by American doctors and scientists in American prisons before the tribunal of American judges (Hornblum, 1998, p. 75-80). American prisoners were being routinely maimed, tortured, and killed in the name of medical science in the years leading up to WWII. American policymakers and researchers at the time believed that bettering society at the expense of prisoners was a noble cause and the Nuremberg Code did little to slow their efforts.

By 1978 the federal government finally instituted a ban on prisoner research…

Sources Used in Document:


Freyhofer, Horst A. (2004). The Nuremberg Medical Trial: The Holocaust and the Origin of the Nuremberg Medical Code: Vol. 53. Studies in Modern European History. New York: Peter Lang.

HHS (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services). (2005). The Nuremberg Code. Retrieved 4 Sep. 2013 from

Hornblum, Allen M. (1998). Acres of Skin. Human Experiments at Holmesburg Prison. A True Story of Abuse and Exploitation in the Name of Medical Science. New York: Rutledge.

Lerner, Barron H. (2007). Subjects or objects? Prisoners and human experimentation. New England Journal of Medicine, 356(18), 1806-1807.

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