Sixty-five years have passed since the U.S. Public Health Service ended a horrific experiment in Guatemala. But we today should be as angry and indignant as if this had happened yesterday. If we are not, it could happen again.
The details are coming out in hearings being carried out by the U.S. Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, which will issue its first official report in a few weeks. President Obama has already sent an apology to Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom on the basis of initial findings.
From 1946 to 1948, up to 1,300 citizens of Guatemala were deliberately infected with venereal disease (syphilis, gonorrhea and chancroid) under a secretive U.S. Public Health Services program run by Dr. John C. Cutler. Dozens may have died from the experiments and many others suffered horribly. The idea was to find out if people exposed to these diseases could be protected by subsequent exposure to penicillin. The study group of Guatemalans, some of whom were army personnel, others prisoners and yet others patients of a mental hospital, were infected by various means. In some cases they were “provided” with infected prostitutes. In others microbes of the different diseases were injected into their bodies. One woman, who subsequently died, was injected with syphilis microbes and, months later, given penicillin. Dr. Cutler then had pus from a person suffering from gonorrhea inserted into her eyes, rectum and urethra. Shortly thereafter, she died.
The project is based on the same twisted philosophy as the Tuskegee Experiment, in which, from 1932 to 1972, poor African Americans in Alabama were deliberately infected with syphilis for similar ostensibly scientific and public health reasons.
It differed only in degree from some of the experiments carried out in Nazi Germany against Jews. The idea was the same, namely that the lives and health of certain people could freely be sacrificed for a theoretical benefit to others at some later date. In all three cases, the human guinea pigs were not volunteers, but were either forced or tricked to participate.
The “certain people” turned out, in all three cases, to be racial and ethnic minorities. What benefits accrued to anybody anywhere from these experiments would be hard to say.
The German experiments were carried out under the most brutal and reactionary regime the world has ever seen. But the Guatemalan experiments happened, with cooperation of local civil and military authorities, while that country was under the relatively progressive administration of President Juan Jose Arevalo, not under any of the brutal military dictatorships that preceded or followed him. The Tuskegee experiments went from 1932 to 1972, under Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon.
The Guatemalan horror was also not, as far as we can see, a matter of simple financial greed, as it was the U.S. Public Health Service, not some unaccountable corporation, which carried out these crimes against humanity.
The common thread is racism and powerlessness: the racism of the people who authorized and carried out the experiments, and the powerlessness of the people who were subjected to them. And those problems are still with us, and can form the basis for future horrors.
We must demand accountability, and compensation for any surviving victims of the experiments, but also be vigilant going forward. All over the world, multinational corporations still choose residents of poor countries as subjects for testing new drugs, and new medical devices and procedures. Sometimes subjects of these experiments are induced to participate by being offered benefits like money or health care itself. If the choice is between starvation and participating in a risky experiment, there is no choice.
In the days of the Guatemala experiment, norms for such research were in their infancy. Today there are supposed to be ethical rules, protocols to follow and checkup mechanisms, but can we really be sure they are being followed? Can we seriously assert that the governments of the poor countries whose people are subjected to medical experiments are willing and able to police the activities of multinational corporations with their vast wealth?
The corporations whose actions create today’s risky situations are based in the United States, Western Europe and other wealthy nations. This means it is incumbent on us to pressure our own government to act to prevent such abuses in the future. And we need to end racism and the disparities of power which make these things possible.