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Panel Slams U.S. Researchers Over Guatemala Experiments

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In the years from 1946 through 1948, U.S. medical researchers intentionally infected hundreds of people with sexually transmitted diseases. The program was spearheaded by the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) and involved hundreds from Guatemala. None offered permission to be infected and none of those infected were aware of what was being done.

Earlier this week, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues released results of its investigation of the Guatemalan research, following a White House briefing on the findings. The Commission has been investigating the Guatemalan experiments, at the order of President Obama.

The Commission said the PHS studies “involved intentionally exposing and infecting vulnerable populations to sexually transmitted diseases without the subjects’ consent.” Commission Chair Amy Gutmann, Ph.D., said that in the Commission’s “view, the Guatemala experiments involved unconscionable basic violations of ethics, even as judged against the researchers’ own recognition of the requirements of the medical ethics of the day. The individuals who approved, conducted, facilitated and funded these experiments are morally culpable to various degrees for these wrongs.”

Last year, research by Wellesley College professor Susan Reverby, discovered papers belonging to the project’s leader, Dr. John Cutler, in the University of Pittsburgh archives. When it was revealed that the PHS was a party to sexually transmitted disease research in Guatemala, the president asked Bioethics Commission to manage the probe on the studies. The complete report—“Ethically Impossible: STD Research in Guatemala from 1946-1953”—includes the Commission’s ethical analysis of the case, said the Commission. The report is posted on its website at www.bioethics.gov.

When some Guatemalan victims filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and other federal agencies this March, attorneys representing the victims, including the national law firm, Parker Waichman LLP, asked the Obama Administration to create a reparations claims process for the Guatemalan syphilis experiment victims/ The government did not respond to the request but, at a hearing last month discussing Guatemala investigation findings, the Commission urged the government to create a compensation system for people harmed from their research participation.

The Commission reviewed over 125,000 original pages of documents and 550 secondary sources collected from public and private nationwide archives and met with Guatemala’s internal investigation committee. The researchers conducted diagnostic tests on about 5,500 Guatemalan prison inmates, psychiatric patients, soldiers, prostitutes, and orphans and other children; 1,300 inmates, psychiatric patients, soldiers, and prostitutes were intentionally exposed to syphilis, gonorrhea, or chancroid, all sexually transmitted diseases. At least 83 died; however, the exact link between the research and their deaths remains unclear, said the Commission.

Cutler was also involved the well-known Tuskegee, Alabama, study in which 600 black men diagnosed with syphilis were left without treatment from 1932. To encourage participation in the Guatemala project, promised medical supplies and other perks to Guatemalan orphanages, prisons, and mental hospitals to allow the experiments. The panel’s stated noted that in 1943, the same team, also led by Cutler, conducted experiments on federal prison inmates in Terre Haute, Indiana. Inmates were intentionally infected with gonorrhea, but researchers in that case did seek consent. That was taken as proof that Cutler and his team must have known they had crossed ethical boundaries.

Following completion of the historical investigation, the Commission will continue its review of today’s standards for protecting human research participants. The report expected to be released to the President in December.

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