Rights, ethics, and evidence:
A path to achieving change
Through our biomedical, social science, and public health research, we deliver solutions that help our partners direct scarce resources to the approaches that are most likely to help the neediest people.
The Council respects individual autonomy–the right of all people to make their own decisions. Respect for persons includes providing participants in Council programs with full information about the purpose of our research or about the services we are providing, the risks and benefits associated with participation, and how the programs, if proven beneficial, might be expanded to benefit others. These principles require that information is conveyed so that it can be fully understood by participants.
In a research context, this process, known as informed consent, is not limited to just a single event or the signing of a legal document. The Council has been a leader in developing innovative informed-consent tools for social and biomedical research involving adults, adolescents, and children in many world contexts. Similarly, Council publications, such as Ethical Approaches to Gathering Information from Children and Adolescents in International Settings: Guidelines and Resources, have changed the way researchers think about and support the process of informed consent.
Distributive justice addresses how the costs and benefits of programs are distributed among the people who might use the service or product. Ideally, the greatest benefits should accrue to those who need them the most. The Council has pioneered the creation of new models of distributive justice. For example, we aim to provide access to our contraceptive products to all women in developed and developing countries. To ensure that poor women in these countries also have access to our products, we require that the pharmaceutical companies we have licensed to manufacture and distribute our products donate or sell them at a reduced cost to public health institutions, which can then provide the products to the poorest women without charge. An article in the peer-reviewed journal Contraception described the effectiveness and public health benefits of the ARCH Foundation, which was created to distribute Mirena®, an IUD developed by the Council. Poor women who received the IUD free from the foundation were significantly less likely than other women to experience an unintended pregnancy.
EVIDENCE FOR POLICY CHANGE
The Council's long-standing commitment to the countries in which we work and the high quality of our evidence have been key to our success in advocating for policies that advance human rights. We strive to make evidence available, comprehensible, and relevant for the policy and program initiatives that are most likely to help individuals in greatest need. We promote the use of this evidence. In Kenya, evidence gathered by the Council about the public health needs of men who have sex with men has changed the way policymakers in Kenya and other African countries view and meet the health needs of this vulnerable group. Council projects in Egypt, Ethiopia, Guatemala, and elsewhere have benefited girls and their communities by delaying marriage, improving girls' knowledge and skills, and increasing girls' ability to avoid harm. Evidence from these projects has had a demonstrable impact on the thinking of government officials and community leaders, changing policies to improve the lives of girls on a large scale.
The Council's commitment to ethics and human rights is supported by our Institutional Review Board's review and oversight of study plans. Additionally, our staff members receive training and supervision on ethics and evidence, and for clinical studies on new technologies we employ individuals who have the specific task of ensuring our adherence to ethical guidelines. These safeguards help us to maintain our leading edge in ethical best practices. We also require that our partners adhere to the same high standards. Because our mission is to improve the well-being of current and future generations around the world, organizing our work around the principles of ethics and evidence is critical to the success of our efforts. Our commitment to human rights is essential to the long-term impact of our work.
John W. Townsend is a vice president and director of the Population Council's Reproductive Health program. Patricia C. Vaughan is the Population Council's general counsel and secretary.