Self-harm using poison is a serious public health problem in Sri Lanka. As part of an effort to tackle the problem, clinical trials are used to identify effective antidotes. This talk describes the conduct of trials in this unusual and difficult context.
Based on ethnographic material collected in rural hospitals in Sri Lanka between 2008 and 2009, this talk outlines three subject positions crucial to understanding the complexity of such clinical trials. At one level, research participants who have taken poison might be thought of as abjects, that is, stigmatised by actions that have placed them at the very limits of physical and social life. They have seriously harmed themselves in an act that often leads to death, marking the act as a suicide. Yet, this is the point when they are recruited into trials and become objects of research and experimentation. Participation in experimental research accords them particular rights mandated in international ethical guidelines for human subject research. Here the inexorable logic of trials and morality of care meet in circumstances of dire emergency and in such contexts, we argue, (bio)ethics is precarious.