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The Ethics of Research in the Belmont Report


The Belmont report was issued in the 1970s by the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research setting specific ethical guidelines for research involving people. The report explores ways to combat ethical issues that might arise in such research. The Commission elaborated three basic ethical principles that subsequently became the criteria for biomedical and behavioral research that concerns humans. These core principles are respect for persons, beneficence, and justice. Depending on the case, other principles such as issues of selection should also be considered, although these three are comprehensive enough to be generalized to a large scope of ethical problems in research.

Respect for Persons

The first ethical principle outlined in the report is respect for persons. It involves the understanding that each human is an autonomous agent and should, therefore, be respected. The concept of autonomy is key to this ethical principle. Autonomous persons are individuals who can set personal goals, have their own opinions, and are capable of acting upon their decisions. Therefore, all the information should be provided clearly by the researcher so that the subjects could make decisions based on what they were told. Furthermore, the participants should enter the research voluntarily and be allowed to act freely upon the judgments they make. Such an outcome can be achieved through informed consent that discusses three components: information, comprehension, and voluntariness.

Persons with diminished autonomy should not only be respected but also protected. These individuals include those who are unable to display self-determination and cannot make individual choices due to mental illness, disability, or age. With such participants, the possible negative consequences of the research activities should be clearly understood and further minimized in order to avoid any potential harm.


The second ethical principle of the Belmont Report is beneficence. In the report, beneficence means an obligation to reduce the harmful effects of the research and to maximize the potential benefits. This idea is rooted in the Hippocratic principle “do no harm” which has long been the fundamental basis of any medical intervention. The concept of the subjects’ well-being is central to the concept of beneficence. However, it is often impossible to know exactly what might be harmful or beneficial without the initial research that might be putting the subjects at risk. Therefore, the researcher might face a dilemma of whether to explore the benefits at the cost of potentially causing some harm to the participants.


The final ethical concept discussed in the Belmont report is the principle of justice. It is based on the idea of equal treatment of all subjects. In this sense, the participants should be entitled to the benefits of the research and should not face unwarranted harm or burden. Historically, there have been concerns about the selection of study participants being unfair. For example, in the 19th and 20th centuries, poor ward patients were often the subjects of research, whereas private patients received improved medical care. Therefore, the principle of justice deals with the question of who has to face the burdens of the research and who then experiences its benefits. In the modern world of science, the participants are chosen more carefully to avoid this inequity.

Evaluating PTSD Research in the Context of Justice

It is important to evaluate all relevant research in the context of these ethical principles. This essay specifically applies the concept of justice to the previously gathered research. Creech and Misca (2017) explore the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder in the families of war veterans. Therefore, the results can only be applied to the families where war trauma has been experienced. Although it would be inappropriate to relate such data to the general public, it is not the aim of the research. The investigation is successful in exploring the development of PTSD in the war veterans’ families. The participants suffer the consequences of the condition associated with war, and the study explores the prevalence of mental disorders in veterans’ children. The subjects benefit from the research because they are provided with information regarding their conditions and the relationship of their mental disorders to their relatives’ conditions.

Similarly, the research conducted by Henkelmann et al. (2020) examines refugees experiencing symptoms of PTSD after facing traumatizing circumstances in their home countries. The sampling process included refugees, although there are limitations associated with the results’ application to the larger group of such individuals. The investigation is a meta-analysis, for which a sampling of almost 15000 respondents was taken from previously existing research. This is ethical because the data used already exists and does not employ new participants. Nevertheless, a number of the studies discussed in this work used limited sampling and focused on refugees settling in high-income countries. Therefore, the findings cannot be applied to refugees in lower-income countries and would hardly be beneficial for them.

In both cases, it would be difficult to include a diverse group of subjects as the only participants because of the specificity of the PTSD research. In Henkelmann et al. (2020), the subjects had to all be refugees because the research explored the prevalence of PTSD in refugees specifically. The effects of PTSD can only be examined in the actual PTSD patients, which is why a diverse sampling would be unreasonable.


In the case of the studies outlined above, it would be impossible to include a more diverse group of participants because the goal of such research is to examine PTSD in PTSD patients and their families. Such research is, however, beneficial specifically for the participants experiencing PTSD symptoms. Furthermore, since most of such research incorporates meta-analyses, it is ethical and complies with the principle of justice.


National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research. (1979). The Belmont Report: Ethical principles and guidelines for the protection of human subjects of research. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Web.

Creech, S., & Misca, G. (2017). Parenting with PTSD: A review of research on the influence of PTSD on parent-child functioning in military and veteran families. Frontiers in Psychology. Web.

Henkelmann, J. R., de Best, S., Deckers, C., Jensen, K., Shahab, M., Elzinga, B., & Molendijk, M. (2020). Anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder in refugees-resettling in high-income countries: Systematic review and meta-analysis. BJPsych Open, 6(4) 1–7. Web.

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