Children as Means and Ends in Large‐Scale Medical Research

9 Pages Posted: 14 Sep 2012

Date Written: October 2012


This paper considers the often‐expressed fear that medical research may use children merely as means, and not respect them as ends in themselves – especially insofar as they are deemed less able to consent than adults. The main focus is on large‐scale genetic, socio‐medical and epidemiological research. The theoretical starting point of the paper is that to be treated as an end in oneself is to be regarded as – and to act as – a participant in cooperative endeavours. This participatory status is certainly connected with individual authority to consent and dissent; and there is no doubt that consent plays an important role when adults participate in many research projects. However, insofar as consent is located within structures of human cooperation, the authority to consent is not a straightforward privilege. Rather, consent is bound up with responsibility for one's choices and commitment to shared terms of cooperation. Given this understanding, it is argued that consent should not be our principal concern when we involve children in research. This is not because of children's (possible) incompetence to consent as such, but rather because children are still learning how to respect and assess the cooperative terms involved in our institutional lives. Instead, our leading concern should be with the terms regulating their involvement in research. Given suitable safeguards, research is one way in which children may learn what it is to bear responsibilities and to act as an end in oneself – that is, to cooperate with others on reasonable terms and for worthy ends.

Keywords: children, research, consent, participation, Kantian ethics, genetics, epidemiology

Suggested Citation

Williams, Garrath, Children as Means and Ends in Large‐Scale Medical Research (October 2012). Bioethics, Vol. 26, Issue 8, pp. 422-430, 2012, Available at SSRN: or

Garrath Williams (Contact Author)

Lancaster University ( email )

Lancaster LA1 4YX
United Kingdom


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