U.S. Seeks to Dismiss Guatemala Syphilis Experiment Lawsuit, Announces Funding for Guatemalan Health Authorities

The federal government is trying to a have a lawsuit dismissed that was filed last year on behalf of victims of non-consensual Guatemala medical experiments conducted by U.S. government researchers in the 1940’s. Just a day after the Department of Justice filed court papers seeking the dismissal, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), a defendant in the Guatemalan lawsuit, pledged $1.8 million to help Guatemalan health authorities to fight sexual disease and improve research with human subjects.

As we reported previously, the Guatemalan lawsuit, which seeks class action status, alleges that more than 1,300 Guatemalan citizens, including soldiers, mental patients, and prisoners, were intentionally infected with syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases by researchers for the U.S. public health services from 1946 through 1948. The experiments were conducted without the knowledge or consent of the subjects. 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.

The lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, seeks to represent an unknown number of Guatemalans who have yet to be identified but were injured by the experiments. Plaintiffs are being represented by attorneys with Parker Waichman LLP and Conrad & Scherer.

When the experimentation came to light, President Obama apologized for the research, and tasked the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues with investigating the experiments. In September, the panel deemed the Guatemalan experiments “unconscionable” and also called on the U.S. government to create a system to compensate people who are harmed by participating in scientific research.

On Monday, lawyers for the Justice Department filed motions seeking dismissal of the lawsuit, according to The Washington Times. While lawyers for the government said the U.S. is “is committed to taking appropriate steps to address that wrong,” they wrote, “this lawsuit is not the proper vehicle – and this Court is not the proper forum – through which the consequences of this shameful conduct may be resolved.”

A day later, HHS announced its plan to provide the $1.8 million in funding to aid Guatemalan health authorities.

“Although these events occurred more than six decades ago, we are outraged that such reprehensible research could have occurred under the guise of public health and we deeply regret that it happened,” a spokesperson for HHS said Tuesday.

According to a report in The Washington Post, some are calling on the government to do more.

“We’re missing the piece of what will be provided as a direct remedy” to study survivors, said Ruth Faden, director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. She also told the Post that there was precedent for the U.S. government to pay victims of unethical experiments, citing restitution made in the 1990s to victims of radiation experiments conducted by the U.S. military in the 1940s and 1950. Victims of the Tuskegee experiments also eventually received restitution.

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