The 2008 Declaration of Helsinki — First among Equals in Research Ethics?


  • Annette Rid,

    1. Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Bioethics, National Institutes of Health, and an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Biomedical Ethics, University of Zurich, Switzerland (on leave).
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  • Harald Schmidt

    1. Assistant Director of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and a Research Associate at the London School of Economics, UK.
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The World Medical Association's (WMA) Declaration of Helsinki is one of the most important and influential international research ethics documents. Its most recent 2008 version declares unprecedented universal primacy over all existing national or international ethical, legal, or regulatory requirements. This self-proclaimed status as a set of minimal ethical standards raises important questions about the Declaration's appropriate normative status. The present paper argues that the new claim of ethical primacy is problematic and makes the Declaration unnecessarily vulnerable to criticism. Future revisions of the Declaration should therefore remove this claim and strengthen the document, first, by clarifying its normative status as a set of strong default recommendations, to be followed unless there is compelling ethical reason to do otherwise; and second, by improving the substance of the Declaration through further precision, specification, and argument.