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The ethical issues regarding consent to clinical trials with pre-term or sick neonates: a systematic review (framework synthesis) of the analytical (theoretical/philosophical) research

Megone, Chirstopher; Wilman, Eleanor; Oliver, Sandy; Duley, Lelia; Gyte, Gill; Wright, Judy

The ethical issues regarding consent to clinical trials with pre-term or sick neonates: a systematic review (framework synthesis) of the analytical (theoretical/philosophical) research Thumbnail


Chirstopher Megone

Eleanor Wilman

Sandy Oliver

Lelia Duley

Gill Gyte

Judy Wright


Background: Conducting clinical trials with pre-term or sick infants is important if care for this population is to be underpinned by sound evidence. Yet, approaching the parents of these infants at such a difficult time raises challenges to obtaining valid informed consent for such research. In this study, we asked, What light does the analytical literature cast on an ethically defensible approach to obtaining informed consent in perinatal clinical trials?

Methods: In a systematic search, we identified 30 studies. We began our analysis by applying philosophical frameworks, which were then refined as concepts emerged from the analytical studies, to present a coherent picture of a broad literature.

Results: Between them, the studies addressed four themes. The first three were the ethical basis for parental informed consent for neonatal and/or perinatal research, the validity of parental consent in this context, and the range of possible options in methods for gaining consent. The last was the issue of risk and the possibility of a double-standard or asymmetry in the current approaches to the requirement for consent for research and consent for clinical treatment.

Conclusions: In addressing these issues, the analysed studies showed that, whilst there are a variety of possible defences for seeking parental ‘consent’ to neonatal and/or perinatal clinical trials, these are all consistent with the strongly and widely held view that it is important that parents do give (or decline) consent for such research. So far as the method of obtaining consent is concerned, none of the existing consent processes reviewed by the research is satisfactory, and there are philosophical reasons for supposing that at least some parents will fail to give valid consent in a neonatal context. Furthermore, in giving parental ‘consent’ in a perinatal context, parents are authorising infant participation, not giving ‘proxy consent’. Finally, there are reasons for giving weight to both parental ‘consent’ and the infant’s best interests in both research and clinical treatment. However, there are also reasons to treat these factors differently in the two contexts, and this may be partly due to the differing relevance of risk in each case. A significant gap is the lack of any detailed discussion of a process of emergency and/or urgent ‘assent’, in which parents assent or refuse their baby’s participation as best they can during the emergency and later give full consent to continuing participation and follow-up.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Aug 19, 2016
Online Publication Date Sep 9, 2016
Publication Date Sep 9, 2016
Deposit Date Mar 10, 2017
Publicly Available Date Mar 10, 2017
Journal Trials
Electronic ISSN 1745-6215
Publisher Springer Verlag
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 17
Issue 1
Keywords Research, Ethics, Pre-term/sick neonates, Parents, Clinicians, Consent, Validity, Competence, Voluntariness, Information, Risk
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