The lecture last week had me questioning what should be done with unethical research. My gut reaction is to dismiss it, after all, use of such research would on some level condone it. It could act as a guide post for morally questionable scientist to cross ethical lines in their own research in a sort of ends justify the means mindset.When we look at the information gathered from experiments such as those done in Tuskegee or Willow-brook it becomes easier to refute those studies. We can easily dismiss such studies because of the methods of acquisition was clearly morally bankrupt. However, taking one step back we must define what is or is not ethical.
But was it a sound ethical experiment? He got extremely lucky that his experiment had no immediate or long lasting detrimental effects on the child, or the other 23 subjects he tested his theory on. Had the experiment failed Jenner's name, far from being praised as it is now, would be used as a cautionary tale of a scientist caught up in his own hubris. If any scientist today were to attempt to replicate that experiment using the same methods, going off a theory based on limited observation, they would be looked at as the definition of inhumane. Using children as the primary subject base (not to speak of the ability of the child or their parent to give knowledgeable consent that isn't coerced), deliberately infecting said children with two different pathogens, with one known to cause severe illness. Not to mention the need for a negative control group which would receive pathogen without receiving the potential therapeutic. Finally the need to have enough subjects to achieve statistically sound study would require quite a few children. In Jenner's time, those methods were thought to be acceptable.
This just highlights that what is or is not ethical changes with the times. What was acceptable then is not acceptable now. If we accept this to be true then one must wonder what the future of ethical research holds. The values of society change and what is considered normal, just, and right changes with the times. Who knows, 100 years from now the society at that time could look at the research we're doing now and declare it unethical and inhumane. Maybe animal rights will become more prominent and we will move away from vertebrate animal studies. As for all the research up to that point will the society of the time completely disregard the data? Or will they use it but vow to never repeat its methodology? Will they wonder how our research methods could be so callous and barbaric, or will our research be looked upon with praise as Jenner's is now?