Presidential Commission Calls Guatemalan Syphilis Experiments “Unconscionable”

Syphilis experiments conducted by researchers from the U.S. Public Health Service in Guatemala during the late 1940s constituted an “unconscionable” violation of ethics, according to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. The Commission has been investigating the < "">Guatemalan experiments for months, and yesterday released the results of its probe after first delivering a briefing of its findings at the White House.

As we’ve reported previously, between 1946 and 1948, medical researchers from the U.S. Public Health Service intentionally infected hundreds of people in Guatemala with gonorrhea and syphilis without their knowledge or permission. 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 and other inducements to convince orphanages, prisons and mental hospitals in Guatemala to allow the experiments.

At least 83 people died in the experiments, though it’s not known what killed them.

The Guatemala experiments came to light last year, thanks to the research of Wellesley College professor Susan Reverby, who discovered Dr. Cutler’s papers in the University of Pittsburgh archives. Following the discovery, President Obama apologized for the research, and tasked the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues with investigating the experiments. As we reported previously, 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 as part of its probe.

According to a report from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the panel’s 12-members concluded that Dr. Cutler and his colleagues conducted diagnostic tests, including blood draws and spinal taps, on up to 5,500 Guatemalan inmates, soldiers, prostitutes, orphans and school children. Roughly 1,300 inmates, mental patients, soldiers and prostitutes were deliberately exposed to syphilis, gonorrhea and chancroid.

The panel pointed out that in 1943, the same team led by Dr. Cutler conducted similar experiments on inmates at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. However, while inmates there were intentionally infected with gonorrhea, researchers had sought their consent first.

“The double standard is shocking,” the panel’s chair, Dr. Amy Gutmann, said in a statement released by the Commission. “The researchers in Guatemala treated the rules of the day as obstacles to be overcome.”

“A civilization can be judged by the way that it treats it most vulnerable individuals,” Gutmann said in the statement. “It is our moral responsibility to care for those who cannot protect themselves and clearly in this dark chapter of our medical history we grievously failed to keep that covenant. The research team in Guatemala and their immediate supervisors had considerable latitude in the design and conduct of individual experiments. Substantial evidence reflects efforts by the researchers to limit knowledge of the Guatemala activities as much as possible outside of those conducting or directly supervising it,” she continued.

In March, a group of Guatemalan victims filed suit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and other federal agencies seeking reparations for human rights abuses in connection with the experiments. Attorneys representing the Guatemalan syphilis experiment victims, including < "">Parker Waichman 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.

Last month, during a hearing to discuss the findings of their Guatemala investigation, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues called on the U.S. government to create a system to compensate people who are harmed by participating in scientific research.

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