Part 1: The Belmont Report
The principle of respect for persons simultaneously requires that most people should be treated as autonomous individuals and that some people should be protected because of reduced autonomy. Treating someone as autonomous means recognizing that the person can and should freely make decisions and that these decisions must be respected. The concept implies that investigators must provide information to potential subjects of research so that they can truly make free decisions about participation.
Our society recognizes autonomy for most adults, but it also recognizes that autonomy can be diminished in special circumstances. Most children have not yet matured into autonomy. Some physical disabilities as well as cognitive impairments (e.g., traumatic brain injury, mental retardation, mental illness) can impair judgment and, as a result, autonomy. Prisoners, other institutionalized persons, and students can also have diminished autonomy. In these latter cases, circumstances make individuals particularly vulnerable to coercion by people with authority over them. When autonomy is diminished, investigators respect persons by acting to protect them.