The Significance of the Nuremberg Code

  • Evelyne Shuster, Ph.D.

The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential. 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 them to make an understanding and enlightened decision. This latter element requires that before the acceptance of an affirmative decision by the experimental subject there should be made known to them the nature, duration, and purpose of the experiment; the method and means by which it is to be conducted; all inconveniences and hazards reasonably to be expected; and the effects upon their health or person which may possibly come from their participation in the experiment.

The duty and responsibility for ascertaining the quality of the consent rests upon each individual who initiates, directs or engages in the experiment. It is a personal duty and responsibility which may not be delegated to another with impunity.

2. The experiment should be such as to yield fruitful results for the good of society, unprocurable by other methods or means of study, and not random and unnecessary in nature.

3. The experiment should be so designed and based on the results of animal experimentation and a knowledge of the natural history of the disease or other problem under study that the anticipated results will justify the performance of the experiment.

4. The experiment should be so conducted as to avoid all unnecessary physical and mental suffering and injury.

5. No experiment should be conducted where there is an a priori reason to believe that death or disabling injury will occur; except, perhaps, in those experiments where the experimental physicians also serve as subjects.

6. The degree of risk to be taken should never exceed that determined by the humanitarian importance of the problem to be solved by the experiment.

7. Proper preparations should be made and adequate facilities provided to protect the experimental subject against even remote possibilities of injury, disability, or death.

8. The experiment should be conducted only by scientifically qualified persons. The highest degree of skill and care should be required through all stages of the experiment of those who conduct or engage in the experiment.

9. During the course of the experiment the human subject should be at liberty to bring the experiment to an end if he has reached the physical or mental state where continuation of the experiment seems to him to be impossible.

10. During the course of the experiment the scientist in charge must be prepared to terminate the experiment at any stage, if he has probable cause to believe, in the exercise of the good faith, superior skill, and careful judgment required of him, that a continuation of the experiment is likely to result in injury, disability, or death to the experimental subject.

The Nuremberg Code is the most important document in the history of the ethics of medical research. The Code was formulated 50 years ago, in August 1947, in Nuremberg, Germany, by American judges sitting in judgment of Nazi doctors accused of conducting murderous and torturous human experiments in the concentration camps (the so-called Doctors' Trial). It served as a blueprint for today's principles that ensure the rights of subjects in medical research. Because of its link with the horrors of World War II and the use of prisoners in Nazi concentration camps for medical experimentation, debate continues today about the authority of the Code, its applicability to modern medical research, and even its authorship. The chief prosecutor at the Doctors' Trial, General Telford Taylor, believed that one of the three U.S. judges, Harold Sebring, was the author of the Code. Two American physicians who helped prosecute the Nazi doctors at Nuremberg, Leo Alexander and Andrew Ivy, have each been identified as the Code's author. A careful reading of the transcript of the Doctors' Trial, background documents, and the final judgment reveals that authorship was shared and that the famous 10 principles of the Code grew out of the trial itself.

In this article I will explain the important role that physicians had in the prosecution of the Nazi doctors and in the formulation of the Nuremberg Code and summarize how medical researchers have used the Code as a guide over the past five decades. The judges at Nuremberg, although they realized the importance of Hippocratic ethics and the maxim primum non nocere, recognized that more was necessary to protect human research subjects. Accordingly, the judges articulated a sophisticated set of 10 research principles centered not on the physician but on the research subject. These principles, which we know as the Nuremberg Code, included a new, comprehensive, and absolute requirement of informed consent (principle 1), and a new right of the subject to withdraw from participation in an experiment (principle 9). The judges adopted much of the language proposed by Alexander and Ivy but were more emphatic about the necessity and attributes of the subject's consent and explicitly added the subject's right to withdraw.

The Nuremberg Code has not been officially adopted in its entirety as law by any nation or as ethics by any major medical association. Nonetheless, its influence on global human-rights law and medical ethics has been profound.6 Its basic requirement of informed consent, for example, has been universally accepted and is articulated in international law in Article 7 of the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966). Informed consent, with specific reliance on the Nuremberg Code, is also the basis of the International Ethical Guidelines for Biomedical Research Involving Human Subjects, the most recent guidelines promulgated by the World Health Organization and the Council for International Organizations of Medical Sciences (1993).

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