The Guatemalan government is considering paying compensation to the family of three victims of horrific medical experiments conducted by U.S. researchers between 1946 and 1948.
Without their prior knowledge or consent, 1308 people were infected with syphilis and other venereal diseases in order to test the prophylactic properties of penicillin. The Guatemalan government was complicit in the program.
“They have been heard,” said Vice President Alfonso Fuentes. “And what they are asking for is some form of damages.”
The experiments read like ‘something out of Dr Mengele’s notebook’, according Dr Bradley Stoner MD, former President of the American Sexually Transmitted Disease Association.
Victims included children, orphans, psychiatric patients, prison inmates, sex workers, and soldiers. Among them, prostitutes were deliberately infected with syphilis and encouraged to pass it on to prisoners during conjugal visits. Some subjects were directly injected with syphilis via the spinal column; others via the genitals.
Not public knowledge…
According to a U.S. Presidential commission, just 52 percent of the subjects received medical treatment for their infections; at least 83 died.
Led by John Cutler, a U.S. health service physician, the experimental trials were conducted in Guatemala because they were not permissible in the United States. Public knowledge of the experiments only came to light in 2010 after Susan Reverby, a Wellesley College Professor, uncovered records of them in Cutler’s notes.
Following the shock revelations, the U.S. government was quick to issue a formal apology. In a joint statement, Hillary Clinton and Kathleen Sebelius said:
“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… The conduct exhibited during the study does not represent the values of the U.S., or our commitment to human dignity and great respect for the people of Guatemala.”
Although apologetic, the U.S. has not yet admitted culpability – or at least, a willingness to compensate its victims.
In 2012, a class-action federal lawsuit was filed against the government, but it was dismissed by a judge saying that the U.S. could not be sued for overseas grievances.
In April 2015, 774 plaintiffs filed a new suit for $1 billion in damages against John Hopkins University and the Rockefeller Foundation. The plaintiffs allege that the Rockefeller Foundation funded John Hopkins’ scientists involved in the experiments. They claim that both institutions designed and benefited from the trials.
In a statement, the Rockefeller Foundation said that the lawsuit “”seeks improperly to assign ‘guilt by association’ in the absence of compensation from the United States federal government.”
The pharmaceutical group Bristol-Myers Squibb is also being sued for providing the penicillin used in the program.
Historically, the syphilis experiments were conducted at the same time as the ‘Doctor’s Trial’ in Nuremberg, when German medics stood trial for their participation in Nazi medical programs.
The public scrutiny of Dr Josef Mengele’s experiments suggests that Cutler would have been aware on his own unethical behavior. After Guatemala, he played a role in the notorious Tuskegee experiments, in which hundreds of impoverished African-Americans were covertly infected with syphilis and allowed to die untreated.
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