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Practical and Ethical Problems with 'Vulnerability'

Damelio, Jennifer L. (2011) Practical and Ethical Problems with 'Vulnerability'. Master's Thesis, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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This project analyzes the concept of vulnerability and the way that it is applied as a label in the context of human subject research. Vulnerability as a concept represents concern for an individual's or group's acute inability to protect her or their own interests. In the research context, this concept is applied as a label across large populations in an attempt to signify a need for added protections when these populations are enrolled in research because of the heightened susceptibility of these groups to harms, wrongs, or exploitation. Although there are legitimate reasons for extending heightened protections to particular individuals, the way the concept is currently applied in the research context fails to protect all those who are in need of protections, and furthermore, causes harm or wrongs individuals and those populations so-termed 'vulnerable'. The label is too broad, and tends to extend protections to those who are not in need of them to their potential detriment. Furthermore, the label fails to draw attention to the manner in which these groups are vulnerable and thus appropriate and adequate protections may not be offered. The label of 'vulnerability' can also carry with it a stigma, which may be internalized by members of these vulnerable populations. Instead of conceptualizing vulnerability as an individual's or group's inability to protect her or their own interests due to some feature of those so labeled, vulnerability should be conceptualized in a way that does not obscure the relational features of the concept — i.e., that the type of vulnerability of interest in research frequently is the result of relationships of power, and research protections should adopt a framework based on such a conceptualization. The focus ought to be on those features or situational characteristics that are likely to override an individual's assertion of her own interests. This approach would avoid the situating of the inability to protect one's own interests within the individual, and would allow for a practical enactment of protections which serve everyone equally when they are in situations of experiencing vulnerability in relation to a particular other or institution.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Damelio, Jennifer
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairParker, Lisa Slisap@pitt.eduLISAP
Committee MemberMeisel, Alanmeisel@pitt.eduMEISEL
Committee MemberBarnard, Davidbarnard@pitt.eduBARNARD
Date: 6 June 2011
Date Type: Completion
Defense Date: 19 April 2011
Approval Date: 6 June 2011
Submission Date: 22 April 2011
Access Restriction: No restriction; Release the ETD for access worldwide immediately.
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > Bioethics
Degree: MA - Master of Arts
Thesis Type: Master's Thesis
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: contingent vulnerability; IRB Guidebook; reconceptualization of vulnerability; research regulations; special classes of subjects; stigma; vulnerability
Other ID:, etd-04222011-080749
Date Deposited: 10 Nov 2011 19:41
Last Modified: 15 Nov 2016 13:42


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