Guatamala Syphilis Study: No Isolated Incident

Many appalling crimes have been committed in the name of public health, but the recently uncovered United States-funded syphilis inoculation project in Guatemala has proven particularly horrifying. The recent discovery by Wellesley College professor Susan Reverby has brought to light records of the studies, in which hundreds of Guatemalan subjects, mostly prisoners, soldiers, and mental patients, were systematically infected with syphilis from 1946 to 1948 in order to study the effectiveness of penicillin as a treatment.

Subjects were exposed to the disease in varying measures, from doctors placing infected material on the cervixes of prostitutes before they had sex with prisoners (sex work was legal in Guatamala, and sex workers’ lives and health were endangered as a sort of collateral damage) to syphilis bacteria being poured directly onto men’s penises, forearms, and faces.

The experiments are eerily similar to the now notorious Tuskegee syphilis study, in which the United States government left 400 syphilis-infected African-American men untreated for forty years, beginning in the 1930s in Macon County, Alabama, to study the course of the disease. The men, poor and uneducated, believed they were getting treatment for “bad blood” and were offered incentives to allow for their bodies to be autopsied after they died. The similarities don’t stop there – the same physician, John C. Cutler, has been linked to both unethical experiments. Cutler served as assistant surgeon general in the U.S. Public Health Services and conducted the Guatemalan study as well as being a key researcher in Tuskegee, which he continued to defend years after its public exposition.

After Reverby alerted the federal government of her findings, which she unearthed while working on a follow-up to her 2009 book Examining Tuskegee: The Infamous Syphilis Study and Its Legacy, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius issued a joint statement on October 1st apologizing for the experiments. Yet questions remain about whether the abominable study is raising significant ethical qualms within Washington, and many are outraged that the apology issued was directed at current Guatemalan president Álvaro Colom and not at those who were unknowingly infected and their families.

The Guatemalan study further highlights the atrocious historical entanglement of racism and science, and illuminates the continuing medical exploitation of poor people of color. Four hundred men in Chicago were unknowingly infected with Malaria in the 1940s by Army doctors, in Haiti during the 1980s hundreds of men developed gynecomasia after receiving hormone shots from United States doctors, and even today women in the Global South are often used as test subjects for new, potentially hazardous medications, including hormonal contraceptives.

In a statement released October 1st, Congresswomen Barbara Lee and Donna Christensen offered these words: “Even today, the memories of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study are reinforced by the discrimination many people of color continue to experience, fueling mistrust of the health care system among those who need it most.”

In America today African-Americans remain the least likely demographic to get immunizations of any kind and remain the racial group most likely to have heart disease, diabetes, and other serious illnesses. These experiments have seriously damaged public trust in medical science, with some advocates drawing connections between HIV infection among black people and consistent alienation from the health care system. In light of the surfacing of this horrifying Guatemala study it is imperative to remember that the communities most deeply affected by disease remain poor communities of color, and this uncovering will hopefully serve as a continual lesson for medical ethics.

These experiments and many others have seriously damaged public trust in medical science, which serves as a further detriment to poor communities as they question the limited medical services available to them. The Guatemalan syphilis experiment, while a shining example of human rights violations in medical research, is not the only one of its kind. Ironically, at about the time Dr. Cutler’s experiments were being carried out, the US government was condemning Nazi doctors for conducting human medical experiments on concentration camp prisoners during World War II. Those prisoners did not give their consent and the experiments frequently resulted in death, disfigurement, or permanent disability. The atrocities committed in Guatemala were little different. Hopefully this history will be seared into the American conscious as a necessary lesson in medical ethics for the future.

Senti Sojwal works with PopDev as a research and writing assistant. She is a

second year student at Hampshire College where she is concentrating on creative writing and race and gender studies. A native New Yorker, Senti is a voracious lover of literature and hopes to someday travel the world in search of light and laughter.

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