Lessons From Past Unethical Experiments

A bioethics commission announces the completion of an investigation into unethical US government-led experiments with STDs in Guatemala in the 1940s.

By | August 30, 2011

A doctor draws blood from a patient in Tuskegee, AlabamaWIKIMEDIA

A presidential bioethics commission announced yesterday (August 29) the completion of an investigation into 1940s experiments in Guatemala on sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), which involved the infection of around 1,500 people (mostly prostitutes, prisoners, and mental hospital patients) with the STDs without their consent. They found, among other things, that some of the researchers who partook in the Guatemalan study had also been involved in a similar, earlier study in Indiana, where prison inmates were intentionally infected with gonorrhea—albeit with their consent.

The unethical experiments were originally brought to light in the fall of 2010 by Wellesley College historian Susan Reverby as she was looking into archived documents on the Tuskegee syphilis study—a study carried out by the US Public Health Service that followed the course of untreated syphilis in black males in Alabama for 40 years. After Reverby discovered evidence that the US government had conducted similar experiments on STDs in vulnerable populations in Guatemala, President Obama issued a formal apology to the Guatemalan government and asked a bioethics commission to both further investigate the matter and reassess current regulations concerning research involving human subjects.

“It is important that we accurately document this clearly unethical historical injustice,” University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann, who chairs the presidential bioethics commission, said in a press release. “We do this to honor the victims.”

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