The Ethics Of Scientific Studies

Andrew Sullivan —  Aug 5 2013 @ 9:33am

Virginia Hughes describes a study that focused on Romanian orphans:

In 1999, [neuroscientist Charles Nelson] and several other American scientists launched the Bucharest Early Intervention Project, a now-famous study of Romanian children who were mostly ‘social orphans’, meaning that their biological parents had given them over to the state’s care. At the time, despite an international outcry over Romania’s orphan problem, many Romanian officials staunchly believed that the behavioural problems of institutionalised children were innate — the reason their parents had left them there, rather than the result of institutional life. And because of these inherent deficiencies, the children would fare better in orphanages than families.

The scientists pitched their study as a way to find out for sure. They enrolled 136 institutionalised children, placed half of them in foster care, and tracked the physical, psychological, and neurological development of both groups for many years. They found, predictably, that kids are much better off in foster care than in orphanages.

She elaborates on the logic underlying the inquiry:

Perhaps the strangest part of this project was that the fundamental scientific question it posed — Are orphanages bad for kids? — had already been answered. Definitively. Studies going back many decades had shown that orphanages are awful. Research with human subjects is normally considered unethical if it doesn’t tackle novel questions. In this case, though, Nelson’s project was ethically justified because Romanian officials had not paid any attention to those previous studies. Quite the opposite: They had a strong cultural belief that state-run orphanages would protect orphans far better than unstable and untrustworthy foster parents.

This cultural belief persists in various forms, as Hughes explores further here.