Thursday, October 21, 2010

An Egregious Violation of Civil and Human Rights

Today's story is a dramatic departure from the usual bill of fare
that your humble Peasant offers you, my wonderful readers.

Just three days ago a friend and reader of this blog brought to
my attention an article relating how American scientists, in the
name of scientific and medical research, infected patients in a
mental hospital and prison inmates in Guatemala with syphilis
in the 1940s. This was done by arranging prison visits by
prostitutes as well as by innoculation of the disease. An account
of this U.S. government-funded experiment was discovered
by Wellesley College medical historian Susan Reverby. The
shocking experimentation was supposedly conducted to
determine if penicillin, then still a fairly new drug, could prevent
infection via sexually transmitted diseases. The experiment
yielded no useful information but caused much undue and
unjust suffering for the people who were, without their know-
ledge or consent, thrust into the role of unwitting laboratory
rats. Not surprisingly, the project and all records on it were
submerged in secrecy for decades --- then enter Susan Reverby.
reverby reported that the U.S. received permission from
Guatemalan officials to conduct the now-controversial
experimentation but never informed the chosen subjects.
Seems like prisoners and mentally ill people didn't matter
to our scientists or the governments of the U.S. and Guatemala
at that time, so the idea was why not forge ahead with the study
and to heck with the consequences upon the subjects being
studied? After all, they were just criminals and lunatics; they
didn't matter.

Furthermore, the government researcher who headed this
terrible undertaking was also involved in the Tuskegee
experiment, in which during a forty-year period from 1932
to 1972 American scientists observed 600 black men in
Alabama who had syphilis but never knew it, and never
offered treatment to these men at any time. This was started
and carried out during the years of the FDR and Truman
administrations, progressive presidents long thought to be
champions and protectors of human rights at home and abroad.

Fortunately, we have stringent regulations today which
clearly state that it is unethical and therefore improper to
experiment on people without their knowledge and consent
require certain standards for any such work with vulnerable
groups of people, i.e. prison inmates and the mentally ill. Sadly,
these regulations were not existent in the 1940s, so no recognized
ethics violations or breached protocols resulted from this
study in Guatemala. If there are no rules forbidding a particular
activity, is it legal to then engage in that activity? Just because
something is not illegal does not automatically make it right,
but this likely didn't cross the minds of those who established
and carried out the Guatemalan experiment.

The U.S. government has recently apologized to Guatemala for
its role in conducting this horrible experiment upon some of that
nation's most vulnerable people. An official with the Guatemalan
Embassy in the United States said that his country hadn't been
aware of the study until U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
telephoned to convey the apology, but that "(They) appreciate
this gesture from the U.S., acknowledging the mistake and
apologizing," and that "This must not affect the bilateral relation-
ship (between Guatemala and the United States)."

Our great country engaged in unethically conducted scientific
experiments, perpetrated upon groups of people who were
considered to be marginal in relation to the societies which
they were a part of. Although the norms of the day differed
from those of today, this ghastly project is far beneath the
standards upon which our nation is supposed to adhere to.
But to its credit, our nation has acknowledged and apologized
for its mistakes in Guatemala and Alabama. The United States
is not a great country because its is perfect; it is, however, a
great country because it owns up to its errors and endeavors
to correct them. In the song "America The Beautiful" there are
words, "... God mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in
self-control, Thy liberty in law." This passage from this beau-
tiful, patriotic sons says it all.

If you, my fabulous readers, want to learn more about Susan
Reverby and her findings on the Guatemalan syphilis study,
you can visit her website:

The Peasant wishes to thank the Associated press and the
McClatchy News Service for the article from which this
subject matter was derived, and the Milwaukee Journal
Sentinel for publishing this article. The Peasant also wishes
to thank the loyal reader and good friend who called my
attention to this article.


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