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Critiquing the ethics review process in the 2019 Nieuwoudt et al. study on the impact of age and education on cognitive functioning among coloured South African women

A Strode, W Freedman, Z Essack, H van Rooyen

Abstract


In April 2019, Nieuwoudt et al. published an article on the impact of age and education on cognitive functioning among coloured women in the Western Cape Province, South Africa (SA). The study reported that coloured women in SA have increased risk for low cognitive functioning, as a result of limited education and unhealthy lifestyles. The article was widely criticised, and the journal subsequently withdrew the piece. It was argued that the study was unethical as it perpetuated racial stereotypes through its failure to recognise the distinction between race and ethnicity when undertaking biological research on a race group. The study had received ethical approval, which raised pertinent questions about the ethics review process. This article looks at (i) the role of research ethics committees (RECs); and (ii) the normative framework within which ethics committees operate. It avers that an understanding of the ethical issues of scientific validity, fair subject selection and minimising harms must be viewed in the light of the complex social issues surrounding the construction of coloured identity in SA. The article finds that the REC should have considered this study unapprovable, because its methodology was based on racist assumptions, and its focus on one race or ethnic group posed social risks for that community. The REC ought to have interrogated why researchers were unclear in their distinction between race and ethnicity, and have been mindful of race being a social rather than a biological construct.


Authors' affiliations

A Strode, School of Law, College of Law and Management Studies, University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa

W Freedman, School of Law, College of Law and Management Studies, University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa

Z Essack, Human Sciences Research Council, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa

H van Rooyen, Human Sciences Research Council, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa; MRC/Wits Developmental Pathways for Health Research Unit, Johannesburg, South Africa

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Cite this article

South African Journal of Bioethics and Law 2021;14(1):11. DOI:10.7196/SAJBL.2021.v14i1.00703

Article History

Date submitted: 2021-04-19
Date published: 2021-04-19

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