The Moral limits of Medical Research
On the 1952 address by Pope Pius XII to the Medical Community

by Gonzalo Herranz Rodriguez
Bulletin of the Ovulation Method Research
and Reference Centre of Australia
Volume 31 Numer 2 June 2004
Reproduced with Permission

Member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, Chairman of the Department of Biomedical Humanities of the University of Navarre

The First International Congress of the Histopathology of the Nervous System took place in Rome in 1952. The ethical questions to which the clinical experimentation of those years gave rise were a cause of grave concern to many doctors, to the point that the organizers asked the Pope to make a pronouncement on the moral limits of biomedical research.

What gave rise to this concern?

It was the beginning of what has been described as the "golden age" of research. People were convinced "in the period just before the end of the war" that scientists were as important as generals. There was a popular idea that science would contribute to winning the battle for peace and against disease and poverty. Public and private funding began to flow to hospitals and laboratories.

On the front line of medical science, antibiotics were curing infections that had previously been fatal, and psychoactive drugs seemed to promise a life free from anxiety or depression.

Progress was already being made in the field of organ transplants. The optimism of scientists was widespread and the public seemed to have blind trust in the progress of medicine.

In this atmosphere many doctors were tempted to give science their umquestioning support. In some clinical situations, it became almost normal to involve a patient, without warning him or asking his permission, in high risk operations or totally experimental treatment. The doctors responsible for these initiatives claimed that their conduct, abusive and at times degrading, was just)fied by the results they hoped to achieve: the cure and prevention of disease, the increase in knowledge, the social prestige of science and the prestige of the researchers themselves.

Actually these inadmissible methods should never have been allowed and they still give rise to indignation and embarrassment in the medical world. They had been rightly condemned even several years before the promulgation of the Nuremberg Code, an enlightened and demanding ethical guide with regard to medical experimentation on human beings.

Unfortunately, this Code was not widely circulated Various doctors, not without a touch of cynicism, chose to believe that the norms it contained did not concern them, since it referred exclusively to the Nazi doctors who performed such inhuman experiments in the Nazi concentration camps.

In this troubled climate, Pius XII gave his historic discourse on 14 September 1952 to 427 doctors and researchers from various countries. Taking up the task of interpreting moral law in his address to the gathering of researchers and doctors, the Pope emphasized three basic principles:

The moral responsibility of the researcher

1. The researcher cannot abdicate his moral responsibility.

"In the most serious and profound matters", Pope Pius said, "the man in the physician is not content with examining from a medical point of view what he can attempt and succeed in. He also wants to see his way clearly in regard to moral possibilities and obligations".

To be an ethical monitor is the true function of the committees for ethical research; their role cannot be limited to watching over the security and safeguarding the dignity of the subjects of research: they should also preserve researchers from the risk of inadmissible treatment of other human beings.

All human interests must be subjected to higher moral norms

2. The interests of science, and paradoxically, those of the subject himself, like those of society, have no absolute value: they must be subordinate to the higher moral norms.

The interests of science

Science is a great good, an excellent value that cannot be despised and whose promotion is a morally noble act. Yet it does not represent the highest value to which all other values must be subject.

The Pope demonstrates this with a simple, profoundly human argument: he says that the patient's personal right to physical and spiritual life in keeping with his human integrity as well as retaining confidence in his own doctor are values that axiologically exceed the interests of science. These values might appear banal in relation to scientific breakthroughs, yet medicine cannot exist without them.

The interests of the patient

On the one hand, the Pope condemns the "strong" paternalism on the part of the doctor. "The doctor has no other rights or power over the patient than those which the latter gives him". Without the free and informed consent of the patient or of his legal representative, the doctor cannot treat the person's body.

Moreover, Pius XII recalls that the subject of the research is not the absolute master of himself, of his body or of his soul, but as a wise user of the spiritual and physical life which he has received from God, has only a limited, although not exclusive, right to dispose of himself. He cannot, therefore, confer upon others greater rights than he legitimately possesses; for example, it is not licit for him as a clinical subject to risk his physical integrity and/or freedom in medical research that involves him as the subject of experimentation when this might involve destruction, mutilation, injury or other risks.

His personal autonomy has a limit, which is defined by each person for his own overall psychological and physical well-being. This limit also conditions the doctor in his treatment of a patient who entrusts himself to him.

The interests of the community

Pius XII said that "the community is the great means intended by nature and God to regulate the exchange of mutual needs and to aid each man to develop his personality fully according to his individual and social abilities", and that the common good, public health and social well-being are most important values.

However, the Pope adds, the good of human persons cannot be sacrificed for these goods. There is an intangible individual sacredness of far greater value than the medical interests of the community.

Pius XII also recalls that the great post-war trials brought to light the atrocious experimentation perpetrated on human beings in the name of a presumed benefit to society. He speaks of the contemptuous attitude doctors adopted towards patients, which had taken hold of the minds of doctors who, with calm objectivity, described certain experiments that aimed to benefit the community, without mentioning their ethical aspects either due to superficiality or indifference.

Understanding the true meaning of 'moral demands'

3. The Pope concluded his historical discourse with an allusion to the fact that imposing even ethical limits on science can provoke misunderstanding or antipathy. He therefore insisted that the limits he had outlined were not a brake nor an obstacle to progress, but that "the great moral demands force the impetuous flood of human thought and will to flow... into a certain channel".

Moral demands set limits on science to increase its power, usefulness and efficiency, to prevent it from "overflowing" its banks and "causing destruction". Moral demands, the Holy Father concluded, are an element that has contributed to the best and most beautiful of what man has produced.

This address awakened many consciences. It was reprinted, quite rightly, in many anthologies of the ethics of biomedical research published in the decades that followed and has been quoted in various books and articles. The core of its message "that the interests of science and of the community can never prevail over the individual" has even been included, since 1975, in the Helsinki Declaration of the World Medical Association.