Daughter of the "National Commission." (Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments; National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research)

By Crigger, Bette-Jane | The Hastings Center Report, May-June 1994 | Go to article overview

Daughter of the "National Commission." (Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments; National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research)


Crigger, Bette-Jane, The Hastings Center Report


It began in November 1993 with stories in an Albuquerque (New Mexico) newspaper about terminally ill patients who were injected with high doses of plutonium without their knowledge or consent in studies conducted under the Manhattan Project between 1945 and 1947. Papers and news magazines across the United States were soon reporting dozens of other "radiation experiments" in what Science correspondent Charles Mann described as one of the media's "classic feeding frenzies" (28 January 1994).

Public response to the disclosures--many of the studies were originally published in professional scientific journals and had been familiar to the research community for years--soon led Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary to establish the "Human Radiation Hotline" (1-800-493-2998) to answer questions and collect information about other radiation experiments (New York Times, 31 December 1993).

And in January 1994 President Clinton established a special Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments to examine radiation research conducted or sponsored by the government between 1944 and 30 May 1974, when the then Department of Health, Education and Welfare issued regulations governing research with human subjects. The advisory committee will report to the Human Radiation Interagency Working Group, a body composed of the secretaries of Energy, Defense, Health and Human Services, and Veterans Affairs, the U.S. Attorney General, and the directors of the Central Intelligence Agency and Office of Management and Budget.

The advisory committee, chaired by Ruth Faden, director of the Program in Law, Ethics and Health at Johns Hopkins University, is charged with reviewing records of thirteen specific studies, including atmospheric distribution of radioactive gases and "radiation warfare ballistic dispersal devices," as well as "any other similar experiment that may later be identified" by the interagency working group. In the course of its review, the committee is to determine whether the research had a clear medical and scientific purpose, whether there was appropriate medical follow-up, whether the design and conduct of the study met ethical and scientific standards for research with human subjects "that prevailed at the time of the experiments and that exist today. …

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