Atrocious Medical Tests Performed on Prisoners and Disabled from 1940-1960
A review of old press clippings, coupled with the statements of U.S. officials, has revealed that dozens of unethical medical studies were carried out with disabled people, prison inmates and even retarded children.
The news of these horrific studies comes to light after the U.S. government made a public apology last fall for a 1946-48 Guatemalan study in which federal doctors knowingly infected prisoners and mental patients with syphilis.
Most of the studies took place between 1940 and 1970. Although much of the research was not covered by the news media, some of the studies were. Studies that went public during that time frame were not often criticized because the there was a genuine fear about infections diseases that were much more deadly back in the day.
The medical community, and the public in general, seemed to agree that sacrifice for the nation was more important than the human rights of those who were felt to not either contribute to society or have “full rights” as Americans.
In its comprehensive report on this phenomenon, the Associated Press listed about 10 studies that would be considered inexcusable by today’s standards. Most of these studies entailed deliberately giving a disease to subjects. Although some prison inmates volunteered, many of the other test subjects may not have been fully aware of what was taking place.
One study involved injecting mentally ill men with hepatitis, and another required young male prisoners to swallow unfiltered stool suspension. One study subjected 23 inmates to the Asian flu. In yet another study, which involved two dozen inmate volunteers, gonorrhea was pumped into their system directly through the penis.
“When you give somebody a disease – even by the standards of their time – you really cross the key ethical norm of the profession,” Arthur Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Bioethics, told the Associated Press.
Beginning in the mid-1960s, the U.S. public was more likely to balk at experiments that were particularly atrocious. In Brooklyn in 1963, an experiment injected cancer cells into 19 old and debilitated patients, without their permission, at a Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital. And nearby, in Staten Island, a study at the Willowbrook State School for children with mental retardation involved intentionally giving hepatitis to determine if they could be cured with gamma globulin.
Those two studies, plus the well-known Tuskegee syphilis study in which 600 black men in Alabama with syphilis were not given adequate treatment, combined to bring an increase in critical media coverage. This helped to spark public outrage at what was taking place.
Although some major unethical medical studies have been discovered in the last 15 years (including one AIDS study in Uganda and a Pfizer Trovan study in Nigeria), they seem to have dissipated. But in many cases, it is hard to tell whether this is really true due to the fact that between 40 and 65 percent of clinical studies of federally regulated medical products were done in other countries in 2008.
This is why, after the Guatemalan syphilis study was made public last year, President Barack Obama charged a bioethics panel to re-evaluate the means by which international medical studies are conducted and tracked. The panel is also looking into uncovering new facts about the Guatemalan study. A report is due to the President by September, a deadline which some critics say is too tight in order to make a true difference.
The full article from the Associated Press has all the details.