Since pregnant women are severely underrepresented in clinical research, many take the position that the exclusion of pregnant women from research must be justified unless there are compelling “scientific reasons” for their exclusion. However, it is questionable whether this approach renders research with pregnant women fair. This paper analyzes and evaluates when research with pregnant women can be considered as fair and what constitutes scientific reasons for exclusion.
Conceptual ethical and methodological analysis and evaluation of fair inclusion.
Fair inclusion of pregnant women means (1) that pregnant women who are eligible are not excluded solely for being pregnant and (2) that the research interests of pregnant women are prioritized, meaning that they ought to receive substantially more attention. Fairness does not imply that pregnant women should be included in virtually every research project, as including only a few pregnant women in a population consisting only of women will not help to determine the effectiveness and safety of a treatment in pregnant women. Separate trials in pregnant women may be preferable once we assume, or know, that effects of interventions in pregnant women differ from the effects in other subpopulations, or when we assume, or know, that there are no differences. In the latter case, it may be preferable to conduct post-marketing studies or establish registries. If there is no conclusive evidence indicating either differences or equivalence of effects between pregnant and non-pregnant women, yet it seems unlikely that major differences or exact equivalence exist, the inclusion of pregnant women should be sufficient. Depending on the research question, this boils down to representativeness in terms of the proportion of pregnant and non-pregnant women, or to oversampling pregnant women.
Fair inclusion of pregnant women in research implies that separate trials in pregnant women should be promoted. Inclusion of pregnant women has to be realized at the earliest phases of the research process. In addition to researchers and research ethics committees, scientific advisory councils, funders, drug regulatory agencies, pharmaceutical companies, journal editors and others have a joint responsibility to further develop the evidence base for drug use in pregnant women.