Young pregnant woman visiting her gynecologist in clinic

Ethics & Human Research

IRB Decision-Making about Minimal Risk Research with Pregnant Participants

ABSTRACT Pregnant individuals are often excluded from research without clear justification, even when the research
poses minimal risk of harm to the fetus. Little is known about institutional review board (IRB) decision-making practices
when reviewing such research. We conducted a survey of current and former IRB personnel in the United States to
elicit their interpretations of “minimal risk”—a formal regulatory category—and to identify factors that may influence
IRB decisions to approve or disapprove research involving pregnant participants. Study results revealed some consensus among IRB members about the risk level of individual research procedures and hypothetical study vignettes. However, we uncovered important variations not only in the assessment of risk but also in the willingness of IRB members to approve minimal risk research that includes pregnant women. Based on our findings, guidance is needed to assist IRB members in characterizing risk, applying federal regulations, and appropriately ensuring the inclusion or justified exclusion of pregnant people in research.

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