Cruel experiments on Guatemalans

January 23, 2012

Jason Farbman reports on another terrible chapter--one the Obama administration doesn't want told--in the suffering the U.S. government has inflicted on Guatemala.

FROM 1946 to 1948, doctors working for a U.S.-funded project injected unsuspecting Guatemalans with syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases. Among the infected were soldiers, sex workers, prisoners and mental patients.

The tests included re-infecting a dying woman and injecting syphilis into epileptic women between their neck and their skull. At least 83 people died in one the most sinister chapters in the history of U.S. imperialism or the medical industry at large.

The Obama administration announced this month that it would spend $1.75 million on new protections for research subjects, and to prevent and treat sexually transmitted diseases in Guatemala. But the study's victims and their children have discovered limitations on the administration's sympathy. After a class action lawsuit was filed, U.S. government lawyers have vowed to fight it every step of the way.

This kind of barbarism carried out by the U.S. state isn't confined to foreign countries, of course. Similar experiments were conducted in the U.S. with the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments.

Dr. John Charles Cutler with victims of the Tuskegee study
Dr. John Charles Cutler with victims of the Tuskegee study

The Tuskegee study was commissioned by the U.S. Public Health Service in the 1930s, with the aim of learning how syphilis would develop in the human body if left untreated. The first subjects were poor Black men in Alabama who already had syphilis. For their participation, they were given meals and free medical care--except, of course, that they were neither told that they had syphilis, nor were they treated for it. The study would continue for 40 years and include other horrific episodes, such as the deliberate infection of Indiana prisoners with gonorrhea.

According to the Guatemalan victims' class-action lawsuit filed against the U.S., the "decision to move to Guatemala was part of a deliberate plan to continue the Tuskegee testing offshore, where it would not be subject to the same level of oversight as in the United States."

Once moved, the goals of the new study differed slightly. Funded by the National Institutes of Health through the "Pan American Sanitary Bureau," the Guatemalan study sought to determine how well penicillin prevented or cured sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

U.S. Public Health Service physician John Charles Cutler was selected to head the research, in which as many as 3,000 Guatemalans were infected. About 700 were treated with antibiotics. Barely one-quarter of those infected were treated to completion.

And none of the research subjects gave informed consent. Instead, administrators at prisons and mental institutions were bribed with desperately needed equipment and medications. Doctors also paid prostitutes who they knew to be infected with syphilis to have sex with prisoners. According to the Guardian newspaper:

Perhaps the most disturbing details involved a female syphilis patient with an undisclosed terminal illness. The researchers, curious to see the impact of an additional infection, infected her with gonorrhea in her eyes and elsewhere. Six months later, she died.

BY 1948, word had begun to spread about the experiments--plus, the Second World War had made penicillin increasingly scarce. Only for these reasons, and not from a sudden moment of moral clarity, did the Guatemalan experiments come to and end. Dr. Cutler returned to the U.S., where he joined the Tuskegee study team.

No findings were ever published from the Guatemalan study, nor was any useful medical information produced. The study wasn't even uncovered until 2005, when a researcher reading through Cutler's archives on the Tuskegee study found evidence of what had taken place in Guatemala.

A report released in late 2011, titled Ethically Impossible: STD Research in Guatemala from 1946 to 1948, asserted: "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."

This is particularly true considering that in the late 1940s, the U.S. government was making prouncements about human experimentation by the Nazis in Germany. At the Council for War Crimes in 1947, a U.S. doctor proposed six rules for medical research. Among the 10 principles eventually adopted as the Nuremberg Code are:

No experiment should be conducted where there is a prior reason to believe that death or disabling injury will occur...The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential.

Only in late 2010, more than 50 years after the Guatemala experiments were conducted, the U.S. issued an apology--Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius released a joint statement:

Although these events occurred more than 64 years ago, we are outraged that such reprehensible research could have occurred under the guise of public health...We deeply regret that it happened, and we apologize to all the individuals who were affected by such abhorrent research practices.

The extra money the U.S. has committed to the prevention of both STDs and research abuse is positive. But at the same time, federal lawyers are doing everything they can to prevent the victims and their families from getting direct compensation. U.S. officials claim that federal doctors are protected from any legal action by "sovereign immunity." They also claim that the Federal Tort Claims Act protects the U.S. government from any litigation because the experiments took place in another country.

If Clinton and Sebelius' expression of regret is genuine, the Obama administration should order its lawyers to immediately cease trying to defend the indefensible.

As horrible as the Guatemala experiment was, it was only one among a growing list of crimes against innocent Guatemalans--whether perpetrated directly by the U.S. government or with its support.

In 1954, only a few years after the tests concluded, the U.S. orchestrated a coup against Guatemala's President Jacobo Árbenz after Árbenz vowed to carry out land reform that threatened U.S. business interests in Guatemala. The U.S. backed a military dictatorship that reigned for decades, throughout a bloody civil war in which an estimated 200,000 Guatemalans lost their lives and another 50,000 were "disappeared."

There was another apology from the U.S. about its behavior after the civil war came to an end in 1996. But the experience of victims of U.S. imperialism is that words meant little or nothing--and the Obama administration is confirming this once again by challenging the efforts of Guatemalans to win meager restitution for the heinous syphilis experiments.

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