Reconsidering Consent and Biobanking
The acquisition of fully informed consent presents a central ethical problem for the procurement and storage of human tissue in biobanks. The tension lies between the apparent necessity of obtaining informed consent from potential research subjects and the projected future use of the tissue. Specifically, under the doctrine of informed consent medical researchers are required to inform their potential research subjects about the relevant risks and purposes of the proposed research (Declaration of Helsinki, 2008, “Section 24.” Accessed November 1, 2009. http://www.wma.net/en/30publications/10policies/b3/index.html). However, because human tissue – when stored in biobanks – can be put to multifarious uses, the information that medical researchers are expected to divulge to their subjects is epistemologically inaccessible. Biobank researchers are thus thought to be unable to obtain informed consent from their subjects, making the practice ethically suspicious. We propose that such suspicions of ethical failure should be reconsidered by presenting two possible solutions. Firstly we argue that the epistemological difficulty might be partially solved by adopting the “waiver model” of informed consent. Secondly, we put forward an argument that individual consent can be supplemented by group ethical models. We thus conclude that while informed consent is problematic for biobank researchers, alternative ethical solutions are available.
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