Moral Low Ground

US Government

U.S. Guatemalan Syphilis Experiment Had Roots in Tuskegee Horror

This week’s news that a group of Guatemalans intentionally infected with syphilis by American researchers in the 1940s are suing the US government opened old wounds deep in Alabama, where hundreds of black men were subject to similar criminally unethical experiments for 40 years.

Starting in 1932, the US Public Health Service (PHS) gathered up nearly 400 black men in Alabama who suffered from syphilis, a particularly nasty sexually transmitted disease. Most of these men were poor sharecroppers; they were usually illiterate. PHS never bothered to tell them that they had syphilis, instead they were told that they suffered from “bad blood” and that they would be treated. Most of them had never seen a doctor before in their lives. In reality there never was any intention of providing any sort of remedy to these men. PHS doctors valued above all the information gleaned after the “patients’” deaths. That meant that the test subjects were left to rot away and endure the slow, agonizing deaths that syphilis wrought. Care was never a priority. Said one of the Tuskegee doctors, “As I see it, we have no further interest in these patients until they die.”

The official stated purpose of the experiment was to study how syphilis affected blacks and white differently, which shows how racist ideas were accepted by even the scientific and medical communities. By the 1970s, the validity of the Tuskegee Experiment was being called in to question. “Nothing learned will prevent, find, or cure a single case of infectious syphilis, or bring us closer to our basic mission of controlling venereal disease,” reported one Tuskegee researcher.

When the story broke nationwide, news anchor Harry Reasoner offered this grim assessment: “[PHS] used human beings as laboratory animals in a long and inefficient study of how long it takes syphilis to kill someone.”

When it was all finally over, 128 of the Tuskegee patients were dead from syphilis, dozens of their wives were infected and many of their children were born with congenital syphilis. And all throughout the course of the experiment the men were never told that their final doctor’s exam would take place on an autopsy table. “If the colored population becomes aware that accepting free hospital care means a post-mortem, every darky will leave Macon County,” one doctor explained.

Perhaps the most damning indictment of the whole Tuskegee outrage is that PHS deliberately withheld effective treatment from the victims even after the cure for syphilis– penicillin– became available. During World War II many men involved in the study tried to sign up for the military and serve their country, but were informed by authorities that they had syphilis and were ordered to get treatment. PHS refused to cure them. The agency was proud of its record of denying treatment to all of the Tuskegee men. “So far, we are keeping the known positive patients from getting treatment,” one PHS employee approvingly noted.

Even after the World Medical Association issued its Declaration of Helsinki, requiring informed consent in all experiments involving human test subjects, PHS continued its deadly program. When the national media made comparisons between Tuskegee and Nazi concentration camp experiments, health officials flippantly dismissed them. “Somebody is trying to make a mountain out of a molehill,” said one Alabama state health officer. The American public also found it hard to believe that their government (knowledge of the Tuskegee experiment went as high up as the Surgeon General) could willfully allow its own people to slowly and painfully die from a nasty disease that was 100% curable, solely for the sake of an experiment with little or no scientific merit.

But that’s exactly what our government did. Racism and class warfare played a prominent role in the decision to use poor Southern blacks and brown-skinned  Guatemalans from the most vulnerable and disadvantaged segments of the population as human guinea pigs. Apologists for these unconscionable US crimes argue that they happened in a bygone era with different standards of what was morally and ethically acceptable. Bullshit. The Nuremberg Trials were an unequivocal rejection of human medical experimentation without the explicit consent of the test subject. Germans were convicted and executed for some of the same sorts of twisted medical research as the United States was guilty of carrying out for decades, both before and after Nuremberg.

The syphilis experiments at Tuskegee and in Guatemala were only the tip of the US human experimentation iceberg. From the horrific radiation experiments of Project MK-ULTRA to the intentional release of deadly chemical warfare agents over American warships during Project SHAD and countless other shameful episodes in between, the United States has quite possibly led the world in the highly unethical, even criminal, use of human guinea pigs.

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