UNTIL RECENTLY, Maryland was one of the few states where medical research involving prison inmates still took place.Then three years ago the state-authorized prison research program was temporarily halted by a court suit. Now a bill introduced in the General Assembly would formally ban all medical research in state prisons. We think that bill - with an important amendment added - should be passed by the committee and the full assembly.
The use of prisoners who volunteer for medical research became an accpeted and widespread practice in the United States after World War II. But, during the last decade, people have increasingly found the practice objectionable, with the result that medical research involving prisoners (usually in state prisons) has diminished greatly. In recent years the National Bureau of Prisons and eight states have formally banned medical research in prisons. And prison inmates are rarely used even in those states that have no state law or corrections department policy against it.
That shift in opinion is partly the resulted of reported incidents of abuse of those research programs in which inmates weren't fully informed of the risks of participation, or became ill and were ignored after their participation in the program ended. But it's also a reflection of the now widely held brief that was expressed two years ago in a report by the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research. That is that voluntary, informed consent is rarely possible in the inherently coercive atmosphere of a prison, and that prisoners bear an unfair share of the burdens and receive an unfair share of the benefits of such research. (The use of prison inmates in medical research in other countries is extremely rare, as a result of the heinous "experiments" the Nazis conducted on concentration camp inmates during the war.)
HEW Secretary Joseph Califano, drawing upon the Commission's recommendations, recently proposed to sharply curtail HEW's support of medical-research programs in prisons. Under the secretary's proposed rules, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare would support only those research programs intended to benefit directly the participating inmates or those programs examining the effects and results of incarceration or the nature of penal institutions.
Those guidelines, in our view, are a good idea and should be added to the measure before the Maryland General Assembly. Such a bill would have two benefits: It would largely end a practice whose practical worth to the larger society is now minimal and which has unfairly burdened a particular group of people. And it would offer inmates with serious diseases a chance to take a risk to improve their health.