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IEET > Security > Military > Rights > Life > Enablement > Innovation > Staff > Kyle Munkittrick

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Captain America’s Enlistment and Experimentation: Was It Ethical?


Kyle Munkittrick
Kyle Munkittrick
Discover: Science Not Fiction

Posted: Jul 1, 2011

Steve Rogers, the man who would become Captain America, was not subjected to an accidental burst of gamma radiation or the bite of a radioactive spider. Instead, he willingly enlisted and subjected himself to an experimental process for the creation of super-soldiers. His superpowers were deliberate and intended. However, the circumstances of Captain America’s enlistment into the army are, at best, questionable.

After my chat with Maggie Koerth-Baker on bloggingheads, I got thinking about how the super-solider experiment holds up under the scrutiny of medical ethics. I’m not so sure that Steve Rogers gave his consent to the experiment in an informed and uncoerced manner.

For any medical research to be considered ethical it must adhere to basic standards. A global standard for medical ethics is the Declaration of Helsinki. Devised and published by the World Medical Association in 1964, the Declaration of Helsinki is a guiding framework for all medical research involving human beings. It has been revised over the years to meet modern needs, with the most recent and 6th revision being published in 2008. There are three points of the Declaration that appeal directly to the type of experimentation done to create Captain America. They are:

#6. In medical research involving human subjects, the well-being of the individual research subject must take precedence over all other interests.

#8. In medical practice and in medical research, most interventions involve risks and burdens.

#9. Medical research is subject to ethical standards that promote respect for all human subjects and protect their health and rights. Some research populations are particularly vulnerable and need special protection. These include those who cannot give or refuse consent for themselves and those who may be vulnerable to coercion or undue influence.

Can you really say with confidence that General Chester Phillips had Rogers’ best interests in mind, that Rogers’ wasn’t under any sort of coercion (coughpropagandacough), and that the good ‘ol US-of-A wasn’t bending some rules to build a better soldier?

Let’s take each of these points from the Declaration of Helsinki in turn.

#6. In medical research involving human subjects, the well-being of the individual research subject must take precedence over all other interests.

Steve Rogers before the experiment is scrawny, yes. But unwell? By no means. As with all heroes, Rogers’ induction into the army is a mixed story with multiple versions declaring different things. The general story, however, is that Rogers was healthy but unfit for military service. Too short, scrawny, and weak to serve. So in terms of general health, Rogers has everything to lose and nothing to gain from the experiment.

However, Rogers is, before the treatment, a poor specimen of a human being. He is clearly not confident, nor happy with his physical ability. Furthermore, he is unable to pursue his life as he sees fit. He wants to join the military and is disallowed because of his biology. Thus, we could argue a second way of defining well-being in a more holistic fashion.

By the holistic well-being criterion, Rogers would be benefiting from improved physical condition which would enable him to pursue more courses in his life as well as achieve his goal of supporting the US war effort against the Third Riech. Therefore, as General Phillips is giving Rogers an option he wouldn’t otherwise have, we could argue that he is providing Rogers with an opportunity to improve his well-being.

The catch is that the Declaration says Rogers well-being should take precedent over all other interests, not merely that it should be improved. It seems that Rogers’ interests are the interests of the US government and those conducting the super-soldier experiment. So everything should be dandy, right . . . Right? More on that in a moment.

#8. In medical practice and in medical research, most interventions involve risks and burdens.

Goes without saying. Everything has risks. The ethical issue here is that the patient understands, clearly, just what risks are involved. Given that Rogers was in the process of signing up to get shot at by Nazis, I think we can presume he was OK with the additional risks posed by the super-soldier experiment. From everything I’ve read, it seems that the General explained the research, its experimental nature, and the risks involved to Rogers before even offering it to the scrawny would-be soldier. If that’s the case, the super-solider experiment passes point #8.

#9. Medical research is subject to ethical standards that promote respect for all human subjects and protect their health and rights. Some research populations are particularly vulnerable and need special protection. These include those who cannot give or refuse consent for themselves and those who may be vulnerable to coercion or undue influence.

Ah, we come to the point. So Rogers has the same interests as the US government – convenient, that. I’m honestly torn on this one.



Read the rest here


Kyle Munkittrick, IEET Program Director: Envisioning the Future, is a recent graduate of New York University, where he received his Master's in bioethics and critical theory.
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COMMENTS


I don’t think the question of whether someone has true interests that are separable from the opinions/influence of others is a soluble one. So yes, it’s very convenient that he thinks his interests are in alignment with those of the US government. However, could it ever be any other way? The only way I could foresee would be to bridge the fact-value chasm, whose bridgability is questionable at best.





The biggest problem, Kyle, is that per canon, Rodgers was a WWII soldier.  The Declaration of Helsinki hadn’t been written yet, nor had the work of Mengele prompted it. You are applying Post WWII ethics to a PRE WWII character.





I’m curious how interpretive authorities have dealt with the ambiguities in Helsinki.  This is probably obvious, but with just the naked text to guide us—I’m particularly thinking of #6—we don’t actually have much but some hortatorical hints.  “Well-being,” as Kyle notes, could mean a lot; or a little.  Is the war effort part of Rogers’ well being?  What about Rogers’ satisfaction at participating in the war effort?  From what perspective do we determine well-being?  From what set of “goods”?

As for “vulner[ability] to coercion or undue influence” in #9, interpretive authority would also be helpful.  I don’t know about Helsinki-specific authority, but if you want to escape a contractual obligation on the basis of coercion or undue influence (or void a will in probate court), the generally stated standard is that the innocent party must have been subject to such psychological domination that he could not do other than carry out the coercive party’s will.  Now, it gets complicated once you get into the thicket of cases, but it’s generally a tough standard to meet.

One thing that I’m sure interpretive authority would have had to deal with is what the effect of the doctor/patient “confidential relationship” would be.  I’m not an expert, but I think the prototypical undue influence case involving a doctor looks like this: a patient gives his doctor a gift, but later claims he was coerced by the doctor to do so.  In such a scenario, the gift is presumed to be the product of undue influence and the doctor must rebut this presumption or the gift will be set aside.  But, how might these principles apply in more complex medical scenarios such as experimentation?

The below article gives a glimpse into some less typical medical/undue influence cases, but, unfortunately, does not answer all our questions—

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC539663/





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