American and Australian researchers teamed up with Nigerian scientists at Obafemi Awolowo University and Positive Action for Treatment Access to examine sexual and reproductive rights of Nigerian youth in an article titled “Ethical Issues in Adolescents’ Sexual and Reproductive Health Research in Nigeria”. The article was recently published ahead of print in Developing World Bioethics (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/dewb.12061/abstract).
Engagement of adolescents in sexual and reproductive health (SRH) research which examines STIs and HIV, adverse pregnancy outcomes, violence, and mental health, poses legal and ethical dilemmas. Adolescents are not often the decision makers when it comes to their participation in research, and may not be able to voice their perspectives, opinions, and objections. The decision on when an individual has adequate capacity to give consent to participate in research is usually dependent on age, with many countries including Nigeria using 16 to 18 years as the minimum requirement. The age requirement is in place with the assumption that younger adolescents may not fully comprehend or choose to avoid the risks they may be taking when consenting to participate in research and are more likely to be coerced to participate.
In the article, we make a case for lowering the age of consent for adolescent’s participation in SRH research in Nigeria. While some believe it is possible to extrapolate SRH relevant data from adult research, specific studies on adolescents’ SRH needs are needed, as their knowledge, attitudes and practices differ from that of adults. Direct involvement of parents in SRH research conducted with adolescents may compromise the integrity of data collected.
Ethical guidelines in Nigeria should consider the feasibility of allowing adolescents aged 14 years and above to participate in SRH research without the need for parental consent, particularly in cases of minimal risk. Ethics is an ever evolving field, and consideration of adolescents’ engagement in sexual and reproductive health research will continue to constitute central themes in many ethical discourses.
[Photo: Dr. Brandon Brown, undergraduate director and director of GHREAT in the UC Irvine program in Public Health, at the Biomedical HIV Prevention conference in Abuja, Nigeria]