It's a basic rule of medical ethics: No person should ever be treated as a human guinea pig - at least not without his or her informed consent.
So basic, in fact, is this rule that it is enshrined in federal law requiring that Americans be fully informed of the risks before consenting to take experimental drugs.That being the case, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has no excuse for the needlessly long agonizing it is now doing over an exceptionally simple and straightforward request.
The FDA is being asked to reverse the ill-advised step it took in 1991 when it let the U.S. military give pyridostigmine bromide or PB to 600,000 troops headed for the Persian Gulf War without telling them it was experimental.
PB was supposed to protect the troops against nerve gas. But there is subsequent indication that this drug had just the opposite effect, reducing the effectiveness of other nerve-gas antidotes. Worse yet, there are indications that the Pentagon was aware at the time that PB, while potentially effective against one type of nerve gas, might decrease the effectiveness of antidotes used to combat another gas previously used by the Iraqis.
The case against the FDA's decision to suspend the informed consent rule - a suspension that is still in effect - need not be based on second-guessing but on the lame excuse the Pentagon gave in 1991. The excuse: The military did not have time to get the troops' consent.
What a bald-faced lie. How long can it to take say something like: "This drug is experimental and here are the possible risks"? Certainly not much longer than it took military medics to say, as they actually did: "These pills are to protect you against nerve gas. So open your mouth and swallow."
If the troops had known PB was experimental and had potential risks, most of them likely would have taken the drug anyway out of habitual obedience based on simple trust of their superior officers.
In this case, the trust was misplaced. Such cavalier treatment of our armed forces represents a violation of human rights that cannot be justified even in time of war. The responsibility goes beyond the Pentagon to the FDA. Both offices need a pointed reminder that human beings deserve to be treated as ends in themselves rather than being used as means to some objective, however important that aim may be.