It made headlines when historian Susan M. Reverby of Wellesley College discovered a decades-old program run from by the U.S. Public Health Service’s studies in Guatemala from 1946 to 1948. That’s because the researchers deliberately inoculated subjects with syphilis in order to study sexually transmitted disease, and they did so without informed consent for the procedure.
Subjects were “not told what the purpose of the research was nor were they warned of its potentially fatal consequences.” Furthermore, “U.S. government researchers must have known they were contravening ethical standards by deliberately infecting mental patients with syphilis.”
The researchers, led by U.S. doctor John Cutler, who had also been involved in the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments on African-American men that ran from 1932 to 1972, utilized mental patients, prostitutes, prisoners and soldiers as their guinea pigs. Today, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues issued their findings of a study undertaken in the aftermath of the scandal.
According to news reports, at least 83 Guatemalans died after being infected with both spyhilis and gonorrhea. Over 1,300 were exposed to the venereal diseases.
Commission president Amy Gutmann called it an “historic injustice,” and said the inquiry aimed to “honor the victims and make sure it never happens again.”
“It was not an accident that this happened in Guatemala,” Gutmann said. “Some of the people involved said we could not do this in our own country.”
The U.S. researchers “systematically failed to act in accordance with minimal respect for human rights and morality in the conduct of research,” she said, citing “substantial evidence” of an attempted cover-up.
John Donnelly at the official blog for the Presidential Commission, tells the story of one of these victims, a Guatemalan woman.
Berta, said Dr. John Arras, the Porterfield Professor of Biomedical Ethics and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Virginia, was a patient on a psychiatric ward who was injected with syphilis and not given treatment for three months after her initial exposure.
Arras noted the observations of the principal investigator for the study, Dr. John Charles Cutler, of Berta on one summer’s day. Arras said that Cutler wrote that it appeared Berta “was going to die. He did not specify why.”
That same day, Arras said that Dr. Cutler “put gonorrhea puss [sic] on her eyes, urethra and rectrum.”
Soon after, Berta died….
Arras said he brought up this single case because he was wrestling with the “distinction between blame and wrongdoing for some time….”
“I, for one, have been extremely reluctant to bring the moral hammer down with full force on the question of moral blame,” he said. “However, the issue of informed consent is not the only question. I’m not talking about just the failure to inform. We’re talking about intentional deception. … I really do believe that a very rigorous judgment of moral blame can be lodged against some of these people.”
“The most powerful argument,’’ he said, “is to repeat a story.”
As I wrote on this subject last October, “These revelations are only the latest in an ongoing series of scandals regarding government illegal and unethical experimentation…. There are plenty of other underreported and important stories out there on the terrible scandal that has been U.S. illegal experimentation.”
The list of such illegal experiments is quite long (government radiation experiments, Navy experiments with chemical agents on sailors, the Edgewood Arsenal experiments with LSD and other drugs (with the help literally of ex-Nazi scientists), the MKULTRA experiments, and allegedly, but awaiting fuller documentation, CIA and DoD experiments on “enemy combatants” in the “war on terror.” I don’t know if the current commission intends to discuss this history, giving context to the Guatemala atrocity, or not. But if not, they should be.
Only total transparency and an end to secrecy on these issue will bring an end to this kind of illegal experimentation and the human tragedies that result. “National security” for too long has been a shibboleth to justify the worst violations of human rights. If that finally hits home as a result of the Guatemalan scandal, then those people will not have died in vain. But I’m afraid it will take much more before we get to where we need to be.