The United States made headlines worldwide on Friday for all the wrong reasons, after issuing a formal apology to Guatemala for a 1940s study that saw hundreds deliberately infected with sexually transmitted diseases. MSNBC reports that the study was apparently conducted between 1946 and 1948 by U.S. public health officials working in Guatemala at the time, but never published. It was unearthed by Wellesley professor Susan Reverby while doing research for her writing on an unrelated topic and made public on her website.
Yahoo News reported on the scandal, and the subsequent apology came from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, as they released a joint statement to the media. In the statement, the two express their outrage and regret that the experiments took place, calling them “clearly unethical.” Their apology was followed shortly thereafter by a matching one from President Obama, who called his Guatemalan counterpart to personally apologize for the experiments and reassure everyone that U.S. medical studies around the world would be conducted according to strict guidelines.
The revelation of unethical medical experiments doesn’t help the U.S.’s sullied international reputation, but there have been other incidents that happened far more recently that have commanded attention as well. The Huffington Post was quick to report in March of this year when former president Bill Clinton, in his office as U. N. envoy to Haiti, issued an impromptu apology for his (and others’) policy on agricultural imports. Clinton went on to explain that the policy of the U.S. government of importing cheaper food into developing nations put the country’s own farmers out of business, and made them unable to be self-sufficient.
Further back, but still recently, former president George W. Bush had to issue a formal apology in 2008 when a U.S. soldier stationed in Iraq decided to use a copy of the Islamic holy book, the Quran, for target practice. Japan Today reported that the then-president issued the apology during a videoconference with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, after he expressed the anger and disappointment of the Iraqi people.
The fact that the Guatemalan medical studies occurred more than 60 years ago doesn’t make them excusable, but is likely to soften the blow the revelation will have to the U.S.’s international reputation, especially since there have been so many other situations, even in the last couple of years, that command the world’s attention and have done far more immediate harm. According to the Yahoo News article, even Guatemala’s president, Alvaro Colom, though clearly outraged by the revelations, made mention of the fact that he knows this isn’t how the U.S. does business today. Most nations have histories that involve deplorable acts. Obama’s apology and vow to uphold the strictest standards for U.S. projects overseas, if fully enforced, is the best way to make sure they don’t get repeated.
Robert Bazell, “U.S. apologizes for STD experiments in Guatemala.” MSNBC.com”
Karen Zeitvogel, “Obama apologizes to Guatemala for U.S. sex-disease study.”
JapanToday.com, “Bush apologizes over Quran shooting incident.”
Jonathan M. Katz, “With Cheap Food Imports, Haiti Can’t Feed Itself.” HuffingtonPost.com