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Research Ethics Response
Personal Response Paper
I have to say right off that I had a difficult time with this assignment. I can trace much of the difficulty back to discomfort and my discomfort back to my background in science which, for years, has been my primary pursuit. I am willing to blame my science education for several reasons. The first and most petty reason has to do with the nature of the assignment. I am unused to and made uncomfortable by group assignments after so long spent in biology, chemistry and math classes where the competition between students is often rough. So to have to sit down with a group of fellow students and say, “Let’s work together on this; How do you want to approach the assignment?” is difficult for me. Second, the assignment also seemed to (and did) resemble those assignments—a scientific paper meant to be read, analyzed, learned—from classes in which competition is stiff. Because of this, my approach (and the group’s approach as far as I could see) was to begin to look at the research as science—not in terms of its ethical dilemmas, but in terms of its research design and the protocols used by the researchers. This really hindered our discussions of the ethical issues inherent in the paper. We spoke of how to overcome ethical issues by manipulating research design, rather than looking at the nuances of the issues themselves. For example, instead of discussing the ethical issues centering on recruitment of teenagers and young adults (of which there are many), the group’s solution was to let doctors and nurses handle recruitment during their exams. This seemed quick, easy, and it left our hands clean.
True, the experiment can be designed so as to minimize the amount of effort that a researcher must expend on ethical dilemmas, but of course this only works to a certain extent. For example, the first really big issue that the group faced was that of having to obtain parental consent. We knew—I knew—that this was going to be a bear. After learning that teenagers as young as thirteen could receive treatment in health clinics without obtaining consent from their parents, we all thought we had found a loophole. Of course, since the research was related to the treatment teens would be receiving, it seemed that logically we could bypass having to obtain parental consent for research. I wasn’t, therefore, terribly surprised when Margaret Saiz, from UNM’s HRRC Office, visited our class and confirmed that, yes, it is possible to do research on an underage child without parental consent (as long as the argument can be supported that obtaining consent would have a detrimental effect on the research subject). It seemed a little sneaky to argue this when normally I would be on the side of truth (truth between parents and their children, between patients and doctors, and so on) but, as a role-playing researcher, I was relieved to have an excuse not to have to be the one who would be exposing what are not “scientific truths.”
As a group, we focused on the merits of the science, and not on the inherent ethical dilemmas. But privately, I did read the article and wonder about several things. First, was the research sexist and/or racist? The subjects were primarily female, overwhelmingly African-American and it seemed as though the research had, as a hidden agenda, the reinforcement of stereotypes that our society holds against these groups: cultural stereotypes which include those about what the acceptable punishment is for loose women (here, of course, it is recurrent venereal disease). Was the research upholding the stereotypes that we hold in particular about black women who, as bell hooks has indicated, we tend to see as either Aunt Jemima/Mammy types or as streetwalkers (the African-American version of the Madonna/whore stereotype)?
Would I, as a researcher, have fallen into the trap by which I could find that some groups of people, because they are devalued by the dominant culture, are more easily made into research subjects? In other words, would I be the researcher who would go looking for middle and upper class white teenagers and young adults to support my hypothesis? Would I be the researcher to question who the “urban adolescent” of the article title is ultimately? Would I know, as an objective researcher should, that “urban” here is code for poor and black? And if it isn’t, would I be the researcher willing to approach doctors who had thriving practices in upper class neighborhoods to find out whether their patients would be willing to participate (whether it be as a control group or as subjects) in this type of research, which is ultimately related to the larger public health issue of teenagers and young adults? Would I do this or would I simply be content to let my research reflect the cultural stereotypes that we, as a society, already recognize as “truth”?
I also wondered about the issues surrounding children and sex, believing, as I do, that most children who are having sex are having sex with adults—a situation which is abusive to the child in all cases, as far as I’m concerned. I would be willing to bring to the authorities attention a thirteen year old with a venereal disease who had disclosed as the source of the disease a much older man. But would I still feel the same if it were a seventeen-year-old woman whose source for the disease was her eighteen-year-old boyfriend, or vice versa? In other words, what were the possible reasons for which I would breach confidentiality and could I justify the breach (even to myself) with having to follow the law? And on the other side of the coin, wouldn’t such breaches, were they to become community knowledge, discourage other subjects from participating in the research? In other words, would my experiment be hindered by the morality of lawmakers? These were not easy questions for me to pose or answer.
But in all likelihood, they will never be easy questions to face. So, finally, the questions themselves are another reason why this assignment was difficult and why it made me uncomfortable.