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Presidential Commission Details

Sep 14, 2011 | Parker Waichman LLP

The Presidential Commission investigating the U.S. Public Health Department's syphilis experiments on hundreds of Guatemalan citizens - including children - has called the conduct of American researchers "unconscionable."   The Guatemalan research involved intentionally exposing and infecting vulnerable populations to sexually transmitted disease, including syphilis, without the subjects’ consent.

“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,” Amy Gutmann, Ph.D., Chair of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, said in a statement issued yesterday. “The individuals who approved, conducted, facilitated and funded these experiments are morally culpable to various degrees for these wrongs.”

The Guatemalan experiments came to light last October, prompting an apology from President Obama. Those experiments were conducted by doctors from the U.S. Public Health Services between 1946 and 1948. The research, the aim of which was to determine whether taking penicillin after exposure could prevent sexually transmitted diseases, was led by John C. Cutler, who also helped coordinate "Tuskegee Experiment."  Dr. Cutler detailed the Guatemalan experiments in papers that were discovered last year in the University of Pittsburgh archives by a Wellesley College researches.

In March, a group of victims filed suit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and other government agencies seeking reparations for human rights abuses. Attorneys representing the Guatemalan syphilis experiment victims, including Parker Waichman LLP, had asked the Obama Administration to set up a claims process for reparations, but the federal government failed to respond to their request. 

The Commission is scheduled to deliver a final report in December, but briefed the White House on their findings yesterday.  In conducting their investigation, Commission members reviewed 125,000 documents from public and private archives around the country and conducted a fact-finding trip to the Central American nation.

The Commission concluded that researchers conducted diagnostic tests including blood draws and spinal taps on as many as 5,500 Guatemalan prison inmates, psychiatric patients, soldiers, commercial sex workers, orphans and school children. Of those, researchers deliberately exposed about 1,300 inmates, psychiatric patients, soldiers and commercial sex workers to sexually transmitted diseases syphilis, gonorrhea or chancroid.

The Commission also concluded that at least 83 Guatemalan subjects died, although the exact relationship between the experimental procedures and the subject deaths remains unclear.

The Commission concluded that Dr. Cutler and his team must have been fully aware of the ethical implications of their Guatemalan studies.  They pointed out that the same researchers had conducted similar experiments that involved intentionally exposing prison inmates to gonorrhea in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1943. "In the Terre Haute experiments, the researchers went to some lengths to obtain consent of their subjects: they fully briefed the prisoners who, in turn, volunteered and gave informed consent. A few years later, the same researchers in Guatemala did not seek their subjects’ consent," the Commission's statement says.

"The double standard is shocking," Dr. Gutmann said. "The researchers in Guatemala treated the rules of the day as obstacles to be overcome."

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