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Wronged in the name of science

A 1940s experiment in Guatemala saw people deliberately infected with syphilis without their knowledge by U.S. doctors. Are there more such immoral cases we don't know about?

October 05, 2010

What else don't we know about the U.S. government's unethical history of experimenting on human beings? A Wellesley College professor investigating the infamous Tuskegee study, in which black American men with syphilis were intentionally left untreated for decades to trace the course of the disease, recently uncovered a similar experiment that U.S. public health doctors conducted in Guatemala during the 1940s. In this horrific study, which lasted two years, about 1,500 prisoners, mental patients, soldiers and prostitutes were deliberately infected with syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases, then given penicillin to test the antibiotic's effectiveness as a treatment.

Led by John C. Cutler, who later had a role in the Tuskegee study, the U.S. government-funded scientists selected Guatemala City's Central Penitentiary because prisoners there were allowed to have sex with prostitutes, some of whom already tested positive for syphilis and others who were infected before liaisons. When too few men became infected, the researchers introduced the syphilis bacteria directly into scrapes made on prisoners' penises, abrasions on their arms and faces or, in a few cases, "through spinal punctures." Records show the scientists knew at the time that their experiments were immoral and prohibited in the United States.

Last week, President Obama called Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom to apologize for the despicable experiments, and the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine will investigate further. That's a good start, and the Guatemalan government should follow suit with its own investigation, as this study was done with official cooperation, albeit without the permission of those infected. Since the drafting of the Nuremberg Code in 1947, the laws governing medical experimentation on human beings have been regularly updated to require informed consent, the right of refusal, prohibition of testing likely to result in permanent injury or death, and more. Unfortunately, it's abuses such as this one that provide fodder to conspiracy theorists and skeptics who question the integrity of the government. Which is why a full reckoning in this case is essential. And it is why the government should launch an investigation to find out what other clinical research might have been carried out by American scientists on humans without their consent or full knowledge. Was this the last hideous surprise, or are there more medical secrets deep in the government's files? The American people have a right to know what immoral science has been carried out in their name.

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