The Proceedings of the Twenty-First World Congress of Philosophy

Volume 1, 2007


Gopal Sreenivasan
Pages 85-93

Does Informed Consent to Research Require Comprehension?

According to the standard view of informed consent, a prospective subject's consent to participate in a research study is invalid if the individual fails to comprehend the information about the study standardly disclosed to him. I argue that this involves three mistakes. First, the standard view confuses an ethical aspiration with a minimum ethical standard. Second, it assigns the entire responsibility for producing comprehension in study participants to the investigators. Most importantly, the standard view requires the termination of many otherwise perfectly ethical research studies. This last conclusion follows from appreciating a pervasive phenomenon that is known as the "therapeutic misconception." I argue that a prospective subject's consent to participate in research can be perfectly valid even if he or she does not comprehend the information that investigators are required to disclose. Furthermore, I explain that this alternative view does not in the least compromise the vital goal of ensuring the protection of subjects in research.