Constructing effective ethical frameworks for biobanking

Cordell, Sean and Widdows, Heather (2010). Constructing effective ethical frameworks for biobanking. Dilemata, 4(2) pp. 15–31.



This paper is about the actual and potential development of an ethics that is appropriate to the practices and institutions of biobanking, the question being how best to develop a framework within which the relevant ethical questions are first identified and then addressed in the right ways. It begins with ways in which a standard approach in bioethics – namely upholding a principle of individual autonomy via the practice of gaining donors’ informed consent – is an inadequate ethical framework for biobanking. In donating material to a biobank, the individual donor relinquishes a degree of control and knowledge over the way their material is used in large-scale and typically open ended projects; and the identifying nature of genetic material means that third parties have rights and interests which must be taken into account as well as those of the individual donor. After discussing the problems for informed consent in the biobanking context, the paper then considers three emerging alternative approaches which, broadly speaking, conceptualize the subject of biobanking ethics in communal or co-operative terms: one version sees participants in biobanking research as ‘shareholders’ whilst the other expands on the notion of participation to include the wider public beneficiaries of biobanking as ‘stakeholders’. It concludes by outlining a third view, on which the biobanking institution itself is conceived as an ethical subject whose defining function can do useful normative work in guiding and evaluating its activities.

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