Bioethics meeting hears of whistle-blowers

Dunedin Mayor Aaron Hawkins speaks at the opening of the Bioethics and Health Law and New Zealand...
Dunedin Mayor Aaron Hawkins speaks at the opening of the Bioethics and Health Law and New Zealand Bioethics Conference at the St David Lecture Theatre yesterday. Photo: Peter McIntosh
Dunedin is playing host to a bioethics bonanza - a combined New Zealand Bioethics and Australasian Association of Bioethics and Health Law conference, covering topics from whistle-blowing to robots in medicine, and issues around the end of life.

The event, involving 140 speakers and six keynote speakers, opened yesterday afternoon at the University of Otago and ends tomorrow.

While most of the talks are closed, tomorrow visiting bioethicist Prof Carl Elliott will hold a public lecture on whistle-blowers in the field of research on human subjects.

Prof Elliott , from the University of Minnesota, felt some of the ostracising effects of whistleblowing after he spoke out against a trial of antipsychotic drugs at the university, during which a severely mentally ill man committed suicide after being coerced into taking part.

His experience prompted him to investigate whistle-blowing by academics, doctors and nurses involved in research, which was still incredibly rare and usually led to serious personal and financial difficulties for the person who spoke out, he said.

"Almost all seem really deeply marked by the experience and find it incredibly traumatic," he said.

Prof Elliott said he found whistle-blowers tended to be extremely stubborn people, and willing to work for decades to bring abuses into the light.

In New Zealand Dr Bill McIndoe objected to the "unfortunate experiment" at Auckland's National Women's Hospital from the time it began in 1966 and worked to expose it until Metro magazine finally brought it to public attention in 1987.

They felt they had done the right thing, though to say they were happy, or proud, was not really accurate, Prof Elliott said.

Among those he had spoken to was a man who spoke out about experiments at Willowbank State School for the intellectually disabled in the US.

The man was now in his 80s and still "traumatised and tormented" by what had happened. The man had received death threats and been fired from his job, but Prof Elliott said he was "pretty confident" the man would do the same thing again.

New Zealand had a much better record than the US of preventing scandals in medical trials after the "unfortunate experiment" and the subsequent Cartwright Inquiry, he said.

"New Zealand hasn't experienced a major research scandal since. In so many ways with that experiment, the system worked," Prof Elliott said.



Cherry Farm Hospital. Experiment in situ.

Deep sleep therapy. Patients in managed drug coma.

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