Debates about justice in international clinical research problematically conflate two quite different forms of obligation. International research ethics guidelines were intended to describe how to conduct biomedical research in a just manner at the micro or clinical level (within the researcher-participant interaction) but have come to include requirements that are clearly intended to promote justice at the global level. Ethicists have also made a variety of claims regarding what international research should contribute to global justice. This paper argues that the conflation of debates about justice at the micro and macro-levels has not only resulted in the placement of obligations upon the wrong actors but has also served to exclude relevant actors from the ethical picture. Suggestions for who should properly bear macro-level obligations of justice in international clinical research are offered. The paper further contends that, unlike researchers who violate informed consent requirements, no similar type of accountability exists for obligations of global justice, even for those obligation-bearers (incorrectly) identified by current ethics guidelines.
© 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.