The Nuremberg Code: The Rights of Individuals Must Come First

Out of the Doctors Trial in Nuremberg came the Nuremberg Code, of which Yale law professor, physician and ethicist Jay Katz has said “if not explicitly then at least implicitly, commanded that the principle of the advancement of science bow to a higher principle: protection of individual inviolability. The rights of individuals to thoroughgoing self-determination and autonomy must come first. Scientific advances may be impeded, perhaps even become impossible at times, but this is a price worth paying.” 

In another article, Dr. Katz said that the judges of the Nuremberg tribunal, overwhelmed by what they had learned, “envisioned a world in which free women and men, after careful explanation, could make their own good or bad decisions, but not decisions unknowingly imposed on them by the authority of the state, science, or medicine.”

Bioethicist Arthur Caplan concurred when he said, “The Nuremberg Code explicitly rejects the moral argument that the creation of benefits for many justifies the sacrifice of the few. Every experiment, no matter how important or valuable, requires the express voluntary consent of the individual. The right of individuals to control their bodies trumps the interest of others in obtaining knowledge or benefits from them.”

The First Principle of the Nuremberg Code is “The voluntary consent of the human subject is essential. This means that the person involved should have legal capacity to give consent; should be so situated as to be able to exercise free power of choice, without the intervention of any element of force, fraud, deceit, duress, overreaching, or other ulterior form of constraint or coercion; and should have sufficient knowledge and comprehension of the elements of the subject matter involved as to enable him to make an understanding and enlightened decision.”

The Nuremberg Code, which speaks most specifically to the use of human beings in medical research but also has been viewed by bioethicists and U.S. courts as the basis for the right to informed consent to medical procedures carrying a risk of injury or death, was followed by the passage in 1964 of the Helsinki Declarations by the World Medical Association. Like the Nuremberg Code, the Helsinki Declarations emphasized the human right to voluntary, informed consent to participation in medical research that may or may not benefit the individual patient, science or humanity.

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