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Will a $1B Lawsuit Finally Bring a Fair Conclusion to Unethical Medical Experiments in Guatemala?

— April 9, 2015

A $1B lawsuit was filed Wednesday against Johns Hopkins University, the Rockefeller Foundation and pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb on behalf of the nearly 800 former research subjects, their families and estates, over the role these institutions played in government-sponsored unethical medical experiments in the 1940s and 1950s in Guatemala. During these experiments, hundreds of unknowing subjects were infected with gonorrhea, syphilis, and other STDs. The experiments resulted in 124 deaths from complications.

Plaintiffs assert that Johns Hopkins shares responsibility due to the fact that its doctors sat on review panels that examined federal spending on STD research that included the Guatemala experiments. In 2010, after the federal government officially apologized to the Guatemalan government for the unethical medical experiments. However, when a suit was filed in 2011 again the eight U.S. government officials in charge of the study, it was dismissed by a federal judge on the grounds that “the government could not be held liable for actions committed in another country.”

Johns Hopkins officials responded to the suit by saying they didn’t “initiate, pay for, direct or conduct” the studies and plan to fight the suit. Kim Hoppe, university spokesperson, said, “For more than half a century since the time of the Guatemala study, scholars, ethicists and clinicians have worked with government officials to establish rigorous ethical standards for human research. Johns Hopkins welcomes bioethical inquiry into the U.S. Government’s Guatemala study and its legacy. This lawsuit, however, is an attempt by plaintiffs’ counsel to exploit a historic tragedy for monetary gain.”

In an article published in 2011, details of the unethical medical experiments were revealed to the public. One particularly gruesome case dealt with a woman who was infected with syphilis. Rather than treat the woman, whose infection was slowly killing her, researchers “poured gonorrhea-infected pus into her eyes and other orifices and infected her again with syphilis.” Six months later she was dead. Other cases revealed included the purposeful infection of prisoners by providing them with STD-infected prostitutes, even if it meant that the researchers infected the prostitutes before they met the prisoners. Finally, doctors also infected wounds opened with needles on prisoners’ faces, arms and penises, as well as injecting diseases directly into their spines.

What was the point of this horrific research? Prevention of STD infections in soldiers by having them take penicillin immediately after sex. Because wearing a condom is so much more inhumane than pouring the clap into someone’s eyes. Right?

Regarding the federal judge who dismissed the 2011 case: one wonders if he knew the full story. For instance, then U.S. Surgeon General Thomas Parran, Jr. was not only fully aware of the unethical medical experiments, he endorsed them saying, “You know, we couldn’t do such experiments in this country [the U.S.].” Really? Other high-ranking government officials also knew of the research.

It was all conveniently covered up and likely would’ve stayed that way but for discovery of some papers in the University of Pittsburgh’s archives. The author, Dr. John C. Cutler, was with the federal government’s Public Health Service and later played a role in the Tuskegee experiments (apparently, Parran was wrong about conducting such research on our home soil). Cutler’s papers show that the research was discontinued “when it proved difficult to transfer the disease and other priorities at home seemed more important.” Both Cutler and Parran are dead, the former died in 2003 and the latter in 1968. It’s safe to assume neither died from an STD.

Speaking of Tuskegee, there was another barbaric study concerning syphilis. This one happened in Tuskegee, Alabama and was called the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.” It lasted for 40 years and ran without participants’ informed consent. Researchers led the men and their families to believe that they were going to be treated. However, even when penicillin was found to cure syphilis in 1947, no treatments were forthcoming. Researchers wanted to see how the course of the disease, up to and including death, ran.

In 1973, a class action suit was filed on behalf of the Tuskegee study participants and their families. An out-of-court settlement for $10M was made in 1974 and the federal government promised lifetime medical benefits and burial services to all the surviving participants.

I find it odd and quite distressing that our government takes such a cavalier attitude toward the massive suffering and human rights violations it caused in Guatemala, especially in light of the fact that it took responsibility for those in Tuskegee.

Apparently, the government can be held responsible for gross medical ethics and human rights violations but only against its own citizens. Granted, there are ethical standards today, but since when do we allow post facto violations of such magnitude to go unpunished? Or, are we simply saying that other humans don’t deserve protection from our government and unethical medical experiments?

I don’t believe the current suit has joined the all of the right defendants. Certainly, if the government wrote a check for Tuskegee victims, it should damn well write one for those in Guatemala. Are the civilian defendants proper? In that they were doctors sitting on a review panel that approved these unethical medical experiments, I’d say ‘Yes’. While Johns Hopkins didn’t actively participate in such atrocities, it certainly had a hand in their funding and that, in my opinion, makes them equally liable.


Johns Hopkins faces $1 billion lawsuit for role in STD study in Guatemala

U.S. scientists knew 1940s Guatemalan STD studies were unethical, panel finds

U.S. apologizes for newly revealed syphilis experiments done in Guatemala

U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee


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