The Belmont Report was written by the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research. The Commission was created as a result of the National Research Act of 1974 and charged with identifying the basic ethical principles that should underlie the conduct of biomedical and behavioral research involving human subjects and developing guidelines to assure that such research is conducted in accordance with those principles.
There are three basic principles set forth in the Belmont Report.
The first principle is respect for persons. This first principle is made up of two important, but distinct, requirements. The first is the recognition that people are autonomous and entitled to their own choices and opinions, unless detrimental to others. The second is the recognition that due to various reasons, not all people are capable of self-determination and instead require protection. The amount of protection provided to an individual should depend on the risk of harm and the likelihood of benefit offered by the research.
Beneficence is the second ethical principle. Beneficence is the recognition that people are treated in an ethical manner not only by respecting their decisions and protecting them from harm, but also by making efforts, or, more specifically, making an obligation to secure their well-being. The Belmont Report identifies two general and complementary rules regarding beneficence: 1) do no harm, and 2) maximize possible benefits and minimize possible harms. While the obligation to “do no harm” is often the focus of discussions, the obligation to maximize possible benefits, while minimizing possible harms, is an obligation that warrants equal consideration.
The third basic ethical principle is that of justice. This third principle raises questions about who ought to receive the benefits of the research and who ought to bear its burdens or the fairness of distribution. It forbids the exploitation of vulnerable people (e.g. economically disadvantaged or those with limited cognitive ability) or those who are easily manipulated as a result of their situation.
The Belmont Report, in its entirety, can be found here.