The 82nd Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2013)

Ethical questions in human reproductive ecology


Human Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University

Saturday 9:00-9:15, Ballroom A Add to calendar

Human reproductive ecology is a sub-field of physical anthropology that investigates the evolution of human reproductive physiology and behavior as well as the importance of that physiology and behavior in the emergence of other uniquely human traits, such as our species-characteristic life history. In order to understand how human bodies respond to conditions of evolutionary relevance, reproductive ecologists frequently work in populations where women have limited access, for economic or cultural reasons, to reliable contraception. This practice must be examined from an ethical standpoint for two reasons. First, inequality in resource access between researcher and participant is a positive selection criterion for research populations, which introduces a significant power differential that may create barriers to informed consent. Second, the development interests of research community members may conflict with the researcher’s ability to address questions of evolutionary relevance in the research community, leading to ambivalence in the researcher’s relationship to development efforts. This paper synthesizes evidence showing that the absence of reproductive choice has significant health and economic consequences in the lives of women and children and invites us to consider how we can build dialog about reproductive values and freedoms into our relationships with research communities. Medical anthropologist Arthur Kleinman’s cross-cultural illness questions are adapted to suggest the form that a conversation between researcher and prospective participant might take.

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