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Facing the Shame of Tuskegee

The moral stain left by syphilis experiment will take long to fade

May 18, 1997

Broken trust is hard to mend. But an apology, though overdue by 25 years, provides a starting point for easing the litany of wrongs committed by the United States in the deceitful Tuskegee syphilis experiment.

On Friday, President Clinton issued an official apology at a White House ceremony attended by five of the eight surviving participants. They were among about 400 black men in rural Alabama, mostly illiterate sharecroppers, who from 1932 to the 1970s were unknowing subjects of a U.S. Public Health Service study on the effects of untreated syphilis. "What was done cannot be undone," Clinton said, "but we can end the silence."

The men were told they had "bad blood"; nothing was said about syphilis. Their disease went untreated, putting them at risk of brain damage and paralysis even though penicillin became an effective tool against the disease in the 1940s. Some of the men infected their wives, and the disease was passed to some of their children.

The experiments were described in respected medical journals, there for anyone to see, but no public alarm was raised for decades. The subjects withered under a curable scourge. Public exposure of the experiment finally led to outrage, and in the 1970s to guidelines that required informed consent from human subjects of scientific experiments. The federal government began payments to participants and has provided lifetime medical benefits to the surviving 22 wives and 16 children--and even two grandchildren who were found to have the disease.

But only this week, 65 years after the experiment began, did the government apologize and call for trust-building measures between government health agencies and minority communities. If there are mixed feelings, especially among African Americans, about the president's initiative, that is understandable. The distrust of things official that grew out of the Tuskegee affair cannot be dispelled in a day, or by words alone.

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