Sunday, October 03, 2010

Beyond Tuskeegee

This week saw Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issuing an apology on behalf of our country to the people of Guatemala. Sadly, she was repeating a duty of her office that echoed something her husband had done 13 years before. They both were apologizing for dangerous medical experiments conducted decades before on people who were considered so marginal at the time that they were not given the chance to consent.

In President Clinton's case, it was for studies conducted from 1932 until 1972, in which 399 African American men were known to have syphilis but were given neither the diagnosis nor treatment. It is a tragic irony that the town associated with the proud history of the Tuskegee Airmen is also the location of this atrocity. The history of the Tuskegee Experiment is explored on the "Bad Blood" site at the University of Virginia, where the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library has been actively involved in documenting the experiments and their aftermath. More detail is provided in the article Research Ethics, hosted by Tuskegee University. NPR's Alex Chadwick reported on the study in his 2002 Remembering Tuskegee report.

This week, Secretary Clinton found herself in a similar position, apologizing for a similar but perhaps even greater atrocity. In the 1940s, medical researchers from the United States ran syphilis and gonorrhea experiments in Guatemala. With the cooperation of public health officials there -- perhaps in return for promises of penicillin, not all of the motives are yet clear -- they actually infected subjects without their consent or knowledge. The infection was introduced through prostitutes and through by pouring germs directly onto researcher-inflicted skin abrasions. The subjects included soldiers, prisoners, and mental patients -- that is, people seen as marginal in a country that was itself seen as peripheral. As reported in the Boston Globe, the study was discovered a few months ago by a Wellesley College historian who was studying the Tuskegee case. Secretary of State Clinton broke the news Thursday evening to Guatemala's President Alvaro Colom, to whom President Obama issued an additional apology the following day.

As I witnessed during my 2008 visit to Guatemala, most of the country's population continues to suffer unreasonable levels of poverty, largely because the United States perpetuated its peripheral economic position in the pursuit of cheap breakfast foods. We backed elites at the expense of peasants in a civil war that lasted 36 years, so we have MUCH for which we owe Guatemalans apologies.

The gruesome experiments of the 1940s, however, add significant insult to injury, and this week's apology should be only the beginning of an effort to make amends.

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