It’s a tragic story that reveals the unthinkable immorality of a group of American scientists and doctors in the 1940s. As Guatemalan soldiers, mentally ill patients, and prisoners were detained, the American researchers infected the victims with sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) for scientific purposes. The human experiment was recently discovered, and the researchers infected 696 Guatemalan men and women from 1946 to 1948 in order to test the effectiveness of penicillin against STDs.
How could these researchers justify such an inhumane experiment? Many of the subjects worked as prostitutes who already had various sexually transmitted diseases. Obviously because the study was sponsored by the reputable National Institutes of Health, the Public Health Service, and the Pan American Health Sanitary Bureau, it makes you wonder why so many medical ethics lines were crossed.
This study was buried under six decades — years of lost time — until Susan Reverby, a medical historian at Wellesley College, discovered this horrible research project. She published her findings in an academic journal in January, but it wasn’t until she gave a speech that government health authorities issued a public apology.
Not surprisingly, government scientist Dr. John Cutler, who led this study, was also involved in the Tuskegee syphilis study. This research project targeted 600 black men in Alabama from 1932 to 1972. The men contracted syphilis but were not aware of it, and the researchers breached many medical ethics codes by not informing them of their STD and not offering them treatment of any kind.
This horrific story caused several U.S. policymakers to issue public statements. According to the Associated Press, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius responded:
“Although these events occurred more than 64 years ago, we are outraged that such reprehensible research could have occurred under the guise of public health…We deeply regret that it happened, and we apologize to all the individuals who were affected by such abhorrent research practices.”
Empowered News reports that White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said President Barack Obama called Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom to “personally express that apology.” Also, the Guatemalan government released a statement saying that it “deeply deplores that these experiments affected innocent people.”
Bioethics codes weren’t as strict as they are today, but the new findings prompted the Institute of Medicine and the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to head up a committee to review modern bioethics codes to make sure they are up to standard. Let’s hope that we can carefully monitor our bioethics codes so vulnerable populations will never have to be victims of such torture ever again.