Guatemalan Syphilis Researchers Knew Experiments Were Unethical, Panel Says

A presidential commission has determined that the U.S. scientists who conducted syphilis experiments on hundreds of Guatemalans in the 1940s were very aware that their research methods were unethical. The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, which is investigating the <"">Guatemalan syphilis experiments, is now calling on the U.S. government to create a system to compensate people who are harmed by participating in scientific research.

As we’ve reported previously, between 1946 and 1948, medical researchers from the U.S. Public Health Service intentionally infected hundreds, possibly upwards of 1,500 people, in Guatemala with gonorrhea and syphilis without their knowledge or permission. The ultimate goal of the research was to determine whether taking penicillin after exposure could prevent sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Specifically, the Guatemalan research aimed to find a reliable way of infecting subjects for future studies. According to a Reuters’ report, the study was conducted under a grant from the National Institutes of Health to the Pan American Sanitary Bureau and in collaboration with several Guatemalan agencies.

The doctor who led the Guatemalan syphilis experiments was John C. Cutler, who also helped coordinate the infamous Tuskegee, Alabama, study where 600 black men with syphilis were left untreated for decades starting in 1932 to follow the course of the treatable disease. Cutler used promises of medical supplies to convince orphanages, prisons and mental hospitals in Guatemala to allow the experiments. But while the Tuskegee experiment involved subjects already infected with the disease, Guatemalans were intentionally infected with syphilis without their knowledge or consent.

President Obama ordered the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to investigate the Guatemalan research when details of the experiments were made public last October. According to The Washington Post, , the panel reviewed 125,000 documents from public and private archives around the country and conducted a fact-finding trip to the Central American nation. It’s final report is due in December.

On Monday, the panel convened a two-day hearing to discuss its key findings. According to Reuters, the panel concluded that the U.S. scientists involved in the study did not treat participants as human beings, failing to even inform them they were taking part in research,

“They should shock the conscience not in spite of their medical context, but precisely because of it,” said the commission’s chairwoman Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, according to Reuters.

“The people who were in the know, did want to keep it secret because if it would become more widely known, it would become the subject of public criticism,” she said.

Some of the records reviewed by the panel provided horrific details about the methods used to carry out the experiments. In one shocking case, a mentally ill women Dr. Cutler had infected with syphilis appeared to be dying. Still, the woman remained a study subject and was further infected with STDs before she developed terrible side effects and died.

“They thought ‘we’re in a war against disease and in war soldiers die’,” said Wellesley College professor Susan Reverby, according to Reuters. Reverby is the researcher who brought the Guatemalan experiments to light last year.

According to The Washington Post, the panel pointed out that other countries require sponsors of studies and researchers to carry insurance for research-related injuries or have other ways to compensate volunteers who are harmed. They urged the U.S. Government to do the same.

“The panel felt strongly that it was wrong and a mistake that the United States was an outlier in not specifying any system for compensation for research subjects other than, ‘You get a lawyer and sue,'” Gutmann said, according to the Post.

Unfortunately, victims of the Guatemalan syphilis experiments haven’t been offered any compensation from the U.S. government. In March, a group of victims did file suit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and other federal agencies seeking reparations for human rights abuses. Attorneys representing the Guatemalan syphilis experiment victims, including <"">Parker Waichman Alonso LLP, had first asked the Obama Administration to set up a claims process for reparations, but the federal government failed to respond to their request.

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