Posted on December 14, 2012 at 5:01 PM
Craig M. Klugman, Ph.D.
Joining the long line of examples of concerning human subjects research experiments is a profile in The New Yorker (December 17). Writer Raffi Katchadourian reports on Operation Delirium, a secret military program that tested nerve gas, LSD, sarin and other agents on 5,000 soldiers near the Chesapeake Bay to look at how the drugs affected mental and physical functioning. The goal seems to have been to find weapons that could incapacitate groups of soldiers. Although the soldiers signed consent forms, a class-action lawsuit states that the soldiers were not aware that we were being exposed to dangerous chemicals. One investigator, Col. James S. Ketchum, a psychiatrist, defends the study saying that it was necessary science. The ethical question at the heart of this case is whether the consent was truly informed. However, military personnel do not have the same rights to refuse treatment or requirements for consent as laypersons. Although more recent, the 1999 Executive Order 13139 reinforced this notion by stating that the Commander-in-Chief can waive consent for military personnel to receive non-FDA approved agents if obtaining consent is not feasible, is contrary to the best interests of the “member” or is not in the interests of national security. If a service member refuses to receive an agent, he or she faces disciplinary charges and potential less-than-honorable discharge for refusing to obey an order. Holding soldiers and laypeople to different standards in the same situation seemingly violates Aristotle’s basic premise of ethical justice: One should treat likes alike and differents differently. The notion that joining the military is a surrendering of basic autonomy rights seems unjust at best and provides a screen for conducting the sort of unethical research that research ethics has evolved to protect people against.