Monday, January 26, 2009

IRB Says Women Can't Be Photographed

The New York Times reports IRB interference with a study that combines medical and social research. (Gina Kolata, "Fitness Isn’t an Overnight Sensation," 21 January 2009).

Carl Foster, an exercise physiologist at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, was amused by ads for a popular piece of exercise equipment. Before-and-after photos showed pudgy men and women turned into athletes with ripped bodies of steel . . .

“We said: ‘Wait a minute. You can’t change yourself that much,’ ” Dr. Foster said. So he and his colleagues decided to experiment. Suppose they recruited sedentary people for a six-week exercise program. Would objective observers notice any changes in their bodies?

The plan was to photograph volunteers wearing skimpy bathing suits and then randomly assign them to one of three groups: cardiovascular exercise, weight lifting or control. Six weeks later, they would be photographed again.

Their heads would be blocked out of the photos, which would be shuffled. Then the subjects and judges would rate the body in each photo on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being spectacular.

The volunteers were men, age 18 to 40 (the university’s human-subjects review board looked askance at having women photographed and rated like that).

This is another case where Canada's TCPS (even the existing version) shows a more sophisticated undertsanding of research ethics than does the Belmont Report or the U.S. regulations. Whereas the Belmont authors were concerned about vulnerable populations being inappropriately targeted for medical studies, they did not think about the arbitrary exclusion of populations, or the stigmatization of competent adults as incompetent. By contrast, Article 5.2 of the 2005 version of the TCPS states that "women shall not automatically be excluded from research solely on the basis of sex or reproductive capacity."

I am unaware of any U.S. regulation or guidance that so specifically forbids the kind of sexism displayed by the La Crosse IRB. Still, it's disappointing that that IRB thinks adult women incapable deciding for themselves whether to participate in a study open to men.

For this study's implications for advertising law, see Rebecca Tushnet's 43(B)log.

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