Justice for STD Experiment Victims in Guatemala

Close up of hand in rubber glove filling syringe
Close up of hand in rubber glove filling syringe

Doctors see us at our most vulnerable. When we are sick or wounded, in our infancy, and in our final days, they are admitted to our bedside to bring comfort and healing. So there is perhaps no betrayal greater than when a medical practitioner inflicts deliberate harm. Yet it has happened throughout the past century.

While the Tuskegee Study that left untreated black men in Alabama who were already infected with syphilis is infamous, it is just a single instance in a deplorable history of non consensual human experiments. The same doctor that led the Tuskegee Study was responsible for a series of STD experiments in Guatemala beginning in the 1940s that involved more than 5,000 people, including children, orphans, child and adult sex-workers, Guatemalan Indians, leprosy patients, mental patients, prisoners, and soldiers. The study was funded by the U.S. Public Health Service.

More than 5,000 innocent Guatemalan people were purposely infected with syphilis, gonorrhea, and chancroid without their informed consent. Very few were treated, and the rest were left to suffer almost without purpose, since the results were virtually abandoned before the researchers could pursue their purported goal of testing whether penicillin could be used for treatment or prevention. Victims were left untreated and uncompensated to the present day.

This shameful experiment has left a devastating legacy, since untreated syphilis also infects children, passing from one generation to the next. The Guatemalan Government's report on the study called it a crime against humanity, and noted that racism and discrimination permeated the experiments. The U.S. government report concedes that the experiments were unethical, but offers no relief for the victims. The facts are not disputed.

While money cannot right the wrongs inflicted on these innocent people, it is imperative that we do everything in our power to treat and compensate the surviving victims and their descendants. When the Tuskegee Study came to light, a fund was established to find the survivors and their offspring and provide treatment and payments. Furthermore, the U.S. Congress passed the National Research Act of 1974, mandating the establishment of ethics committees to review federally funded human research. The U.S. has guidelines that govern research involving human subjects, known as the Common Rule.

The Common Rule needs to be stronger in defining informed consent for medical human experiments, and it is virtually silent on the unique questions of such research in developing countries, including whether consent can be truly voluntary in regions with autocratic governments that benefit from the money and prestige that come from hosting research sponsored by nations like ours.

The result is that experiments that would never be approved in the United States are outsourced to places where there is less scrutiny. At present, such studies can be carried out in Central and South America, Eastern Europe, or Africa. To this very day, the medical professionals we trust to care for us can instead treat human beings like lab rats, for example, administering placebos to sick people when a known cure exists.

We must find the public and political will needed to seek out every Guatemalan family that has been impacted by this horrible experiment and ensure they are treated and compensated. The Archdiocese of Guatemala has filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights seeking relief for the victims against the U.S. and the Republic of Guatemala. We support relief. Furthermore, we must strengthen Common Rule and international health policy to ensure that neither the United States nor any other country can again perpetrate such crimes against humanity and human rights violations in the name of medicine. The U.S. government is studying proposed revisions to the Common Rule now. The world over, people must be able to trust the doctors and medical professionals that keep them healthy. We must take every step necessary to ensure the United States never undermines that trust again.