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Revisiting New Zealand’s “Unfortunate Experiment”: Is medical ethics ever a thing done?

Sharon Batt

DOI: 10.20529/IJME.2017.101


An experiment dating from the 1960s in New Zealand has eerie similarities to research begun in 1976 in India. In both cases, women with evidence of early cervical cancer or pre-cancer went untreated, despite known treatments that could have prevented their condition from worsening. This Comment on carcinoma cervix research grew out of my reading of a new book by Ronald W Jones about the New Zealand experiment. Jones, a recently retired obstetrician/gynaecologist, worked at the hospital where the controversial research took place and was a whistleblower in the case. His book provides a meticulous account of internal struggles within the hospital over what has been called “the unfortunate experiment.” Readers might fairly ask whether a detailed examination of a decades-old research scandal in New Zealand can usefully inform ethics debate in India today, where conditions are so different. I argue that Jones’s account does indeed provide valuable insights for understanding research wrongdoing in other contexts, including low-income countries. Jones challenges some widespread assumptions about why such cases occur and how to combat them, as do several other recent analyses of research scandals.

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