Eclectic Rant: U.S. Apologizes for Abusive Guatemala Human Medical Experiments

By Ralph E. Stone
Tuesday October 26, 2010 - 10:47:00 PM

In an Oct. 1, statement, the U.S. government acknowledged that between 1946 and 1948, U.S. Public Health Service physicians deliberately infected at least 696 Guatemalans with syphilis and gonorrhea without their knowledge or consent to study the effect of venereal disease. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius formally apologized for the "abhorrent" and "clearly unethical" medical experiments. And on October 2, President Barack Obama apologized to his Guatemalan counterpart and vowed that all human medical studies conducted today will be held to exacting U.S. and international legal and ethical standards.  

Earlier this year Wellesley College professor Susan Reverby came upon the unpublished study outlining the 1940s experiment led by controversial U.S. Public Health Service physician John C. Cutler. Cutler and his fellow researchers enrolled people in Guatemala, including mental patients, for the study, which aimed to find out if penicillin, a relatively new drug at the time, could be used to prevent sexually transmitted diseases. Evidently, the study participants never gave informed consent. Rather, many of the subjects were deceived about what was being done to them.  

Initially, the researchers infected female commercial sex workers with gonorrhea or syphilis, and then allowed them to have unprotected sex with soldiers or prison inmates. When few of these men became infected, the researchers actually inoculated soldiers, prisoners, and mental hospital patients.  

Thomas Parran, the U.S. surgeon general at the time, was aware of the experiment, as were many in the Guatemalan government. Also, the Pan American Health Organization, whose predecessor, the Pan American Sanitary Bureau, received grant money from the National Institutes of Health for the study. 

Cutler, the U.S. physician behind the Guatemala study, was also involved in the highly controversial Tuskegee Experiment conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service between 1932 and 1972, in which 400 African American men with late-stage syphilis were observed, given no remedial treatment for 40 years. For participating in the study, the men were given free medical exams, free meals, and free burial insurance. They were never told they had syphilis, nor were they ever treated for it.  

Cutler was promoted to assistant surgeon general in 1958 and in 1967, he was appointed professor of international health at the University of Pittsburgh, where he also served as chairman of the department of health administration and acting dean of the Graduate School of Public Health in 1968–1969. 

What other abusive U.S. conducted or funded studies will be revealed in the future? 

At about the time Dr. Cutler's experiments were being carried out, the U.S. government condemned the Nazi doctors who carried out the same sorts of experiments. Remember how outraged and shocked Americans were when the Nazi human medical experiments were revealed. The Nazis conducted human medical experiments on large numbers of prisoners in its concentration camps during World War II. Prisoners were coerced into participating: they did not willingly volunteer and there was never informed consent. Typically, the experiments resulted in death, disfigurement or permanent disability. What was done in Guatemala and Tuskegee in the name of public health was different only in degree, not in kind. 

In the past, the U.S. conducted abusive human medical experiments and then criticized the Nazis for their similar experiments. Today, the U.S. tortures prisoners at Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib and has others do it by proxy under our rendition program and then criticizes other countries for their human rights abuses. Isn't there a strong odor of mendacity in the air. 

As Walt Kelly's "Pogo" observed, "We have met the enemy and he is us."