The Nuremberg Code & the Ethical Treatment of Human Subjects

The Nuremberg Code & the Ethical Treatment of Human Subjects

Saturday, January 23, 2021

 The Nuremberg code was created in order to acknowledge an ethical and legal obligation to patients and subjects of experiments.

In the aftermath of WWII, the atrocities that were committed by the Nazis made apparent the need for codified research ethics. At Nuremberg, Nazi’s were tried for their torture, research, and experimentation on prisoners, and while war crimes had legal stature, defendants prosecuted for human experimentation argued that no legal grounds barred their actions and their experiments differed only slightly from research conducted prior to the war (Irving, 2013). The Nuremberg code resulted from this need to show an ethical and legal obligation to patients and subjects of experiments, with informed consent emerging  as one of the primary concepts. Specifically, the Nuremberg code outlined the idea that human subjects must be capable of giving consent and give so freely without coercion (Irving, 2013).

While not codified into law, the Nuremberg Code forms the basis of most modern medical and research ethics. An important underscoring of ethics, the failure to be codified left the Nuremberg Code impotent as a global unified ethics system. The Belmont Report would instead become a major ethical construct that helped to unify ethics in research in the US. The Belmont Report provided a reference for making ethical decisions which took into account the Nuremberg Code but also provided three important concepts for shaping ethics which included: “the principles of respect for persons, beneficence and justice” (Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1979). Most importantly, the idea of beneficence was defined becoming the common understanding of “doing no harm” (Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1979).

In 1964, the World Medical Association (WMA) released the Declaration of Helsinki which expanded on the Nuremberg Code by defining ethics more coherently and also expanding the concepts of informed consent to create proxy rules such as children and adults incapable of speaking for themselves (World Medical Association, 2015). The Declaration of Helsinki is not an international law but does have authority due to its use in many different governments as their basis for ethics in research.

The evolution of ethics in research has slowly moved towards a more unified code since WWII. The code systems reported here, represent the largest changes in ethical treatment of humans in experimentation. The WMA continues to revise the Helsinki Declaration while maintaining the principles outlined from earlier ethical declarations.


Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. (1979, April 18). Belmont Report. Retrieved from Department of Health, Education, and Welfare:

Irving, D. N. (2013, June 27). Need to know: Nuremberg Code, Declaration of Helsinki, Belmont Report, OHRP . Retrieved from Life Issues:

World Medical Association. (2015). WMA Declaration of Helsinki — Ethical Principles for Medical Research Involving Human Subjects. Retrieved from World Medical Association:

Updated: 10/07/2021


Vincent Triola. Sat, Jan 23, 2021. The Nuremberg Code & the Ethical Treatment of Human Subjects Retrieved from

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