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The Minnesota Starvation Experiment and Force Feeding of Prisoners—Relying on Unethical Research to Justify the Unjustifiable

Abstract

This article poses a response to one argument supporting the force feeding of political prisoners. This argument assumes that prisoners have moral autonomy and thus cannot be force fed in the early stages of their hunger strike. However, as their fasting progresses, their cognitive competence declines, and they are no longer autonomous. Since they are no longer autonomous, force feeding becomes justified. This article questions the recurrent citation of a paper in empirical support of the claim that hunger strike causes mental disorders or cognitive impairments. The paper, written by Daniel Fessler, partially relies on the Minnesota Starvation Experiment conducted in 1944 to 1945 for scientific support. Using widely accepted criteria for assessing the ethical acceptability of clinical research, we argue that the Minnesota Starvation Experiment had significant scientific shortcomings and is a case of unethical research. From this, we question the appropriateness of citing the Minnesota Starvation Experiment and consequently Fessler’s paper. If Citing Fessler’s paper becomes problematic, this particular argument for the force feeding of prisoners loses much of its strength.

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Notes

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sjQ3sStzxaU. Accessed April 14, 2021.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s5mujgdy8qo. Accessed April 14, 2021.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minnesota_Starvation_Experiment. Accessed April 14, 2021.

  2. Garrett Hardin mentions the study to demonstrate that people tend to be egocentric (Hardin 2008).

  3. By “use” we potentially mean all three interpretations provided by Freedman: citation these data, inferring medical conclusions based on these data, and data as serving to suggest areas of research (Freedman 1992).

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Correspondence to Zohar Lederman.

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Lederman, Z., Voo, T.C. The Minnesota Starvation Experiment and Force Feeding of Prisoners—Relying on Unethical Research to Justify the Unjustifiable. Bioethical Inquiry 18, 407–416 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11673-021-10109-z

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Keywords

  • Minnesota starvation experiment
  • Hunger strike
  • Research ethics
  • Competence
  • Force feeding