Are children always vulnerable research participants?
Cheah PY., Parker M.
© 2015 The Author. International guidelines stipulate that in order for children to participate in research, consent must be obtained from their parents or guardians. This is because researchers and ethics committee members have historically viewed children as vulnerable subjects. We, the authors of this article, think that in terms of decision-making for participation in medical research, children are not always vulnerable. Vulnerability is context- and study-specific. In this article, we argue that the blanket categorisation of children as vulnerable research subjects is ethically problematic. Significant numbers of mature minors, particularly in low-income settings, are currently being ruled out of research participation because their parents are unavailable or refuse to provide consent, despite the possibility that they might wish to do so and that such research has the potential to be of real benefit. Consequently, older children are under-represented in all types of clinical research. We here have illustrated our arguments using two case studies. In cases where research is important; meets international scientific and ethical standards and has been approved by relevant ethics committees; where the research team is trained to take consent; and where the information is presented in a way that is accessible to children, then children should sometimes be allowed to consent for themselves, rather than always being dependent on an adult. If children are able to provide valid consent to medical research in their own right, they should be allowed to do so, regardless of their age. The requirements for valid consent that we propose are competence, voluntariness, maturity, independence and contextual appropriateness.