Research with Women Who Have Been Sexually Assaulted: Examining Informed Consent

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: This study examined the research consent obtained from female sexual assault victims at the time of a crisis admission. It also explored female sexual assault victims' general perceptions of research participation. Fifteen women who presented to Women's College Hospital's Sexual Assault Care Centre between 1993 and 1995 inclusive, and who signed research consent forms, were included in the study. These women were interviewed regarding their recollections and perceptions of the original research request, and their willingness to participate in future research studies. The vast majority (93.3%) of these women did not object to being contacted by the interviewer and were willing to participate in future research. Strikingly, 93.3% could not recall signing a consent form at the time of hospital contact. These findings are discussed in terms of the difficulty in assessing informed consent in sexual assault research.

Key words: Sexual assault Research ethics Informed consent

The Nuremberg trial of 1947 generated widespread concern for research involving humans (Homan, 1991; McCarthy, 1994; Seidman, 1991). Research guidelines proliferated in the ensuing years, a fact which resulted in numerous codes of conduct (e.g., American Anthropological Association, 1973; American Psychological Association, 1973; American Sociological Association, 1971; Declaration of Helsinki, 1964, in Reynolds, 1979; Dickens, 1979; Nuremberg Code, 1949, in Dickens, 1979). These codes sought to ensure the welfare of individual research participants by imposing limits and restraints on research endeavours and by mandating informed consent. The inherent risks, as well as the benefits, of a particular study were to be explained to prospective participants so that they might enter the research contract "knowingly and intelligently" (Keith-Spiegel & Koocher, 1985). The rights of individuals who might experience difficulty comprehending the material presented in studies were to be safeguarded, while the liberty to refuse to participate in a study was to be reinforced for all. In short, adequate disclosure, competency, and voluntariness were to be ensured in research involving humans (Stanley & Guido, 1996).

The ethical principles embedded in these codes were endorsed worldwide, but were not always practised (Adair, Dushenko & Lindsay, 1985; Diener & Crandall, 1978; McCarthy, 1994; Merkatz & White Junod, 1994; Weiss, 1985). Women, as one vulnerable and oppressed group, continued to be at risk in potentially harmful studies where risks were not always specified (Baumeister, Cooper & Skib, 1979; Walster, 1965). Deeply personal experiences were insensitively explored with little respect to the privacy of the woman involved. In particular, as studies of sexuality, abuse, and violence in women's lives became a focus of research, few investigations were carried out to examine the impact of this work on the participants themselves (Russell, 1986, 1990). Russell noted that early studies of incest failed to address the impact of participation on women, thereby resulting in personal upset for the research participant and low levels of disclosure. As well, research findings often portrayed women in a negative and offensive manner (Caplan, 1985; Kennedy Bergen, 1993). In the public forum, rules governing the dissemination of research results offered little protection to the collective interests of women (Finch, 1984).

Successive revisions of ethical guidelines have increased attention to sensitive issues and to the protection of research participants (McCarthy, 1994). Recently published by the Medical Research Council of Canada (1996), the draft Code of Conduct of Research Involving Humans has prohibited "research that exploits any person or group" (p. 12-1). With considerable emphasis given to informed consent, Section 12 prescribes the equitable and just treatment of women, children, the elderly, and other vulnerable individuals. …