We knew, or should have known, that this extremely ugly shoe was bound to drop eventually.
Last autumn, when the U.S. apologized for federal doctors infecting prisoners and mental patients in Guatemala with syphilis 65 years ago, it put us on notice that a vile and unethical cultural standard had taken hold of the American medical and scientific communities in the 20th century, one that held it was “right” for the weakest, most powerless and most disposable of human beings to be tricked, coerced or bribed into serving as subjects for experiments that could lead to miraculous cures and treatments for the rest of the population. This–depriving human beings of their rights and lives in the interest of science—is “the ends justify the means” at its worst. But the Guatemala experiments proved that this was once flourishing and respectable in the U.S. scientific and medical research communities, so it would have been surprising if there weren’t more stories of home-grown Mengeles, and sure enough, there were. The U.S. acknowledged as much when it apologized for the Guatemalan tests. Now we have details.
As a presidential bioethics commission prepared to meet in Washington this week, the Associated Press released the results of its research into medical journal reports and decades-old press clippings to determine what other atrocities had been performed in the name of medical research. The AP found more than 40 such studies, and some of them, mostly from the 1940s to the ’60s, were never covered by news media. Many of them were also devised and run by important and greatly lauded researchers.
Among the experiments and studies uncovered by the AP review:
- Dr. Jonas Salk, later the inventor of the polio vaccine, was one of the principal researchers in a federally funded study begun in 1942. Male patients at a state insane asylum in Ypsilanti, Michigan were injected with experimental flu vaccine, then exposed to the flu virus.
- Federally funded studies in the 1940s run by noted researcher Dr. W. Paul Havens Jr. exposed men to potentially deadly hepatitis in a series of experiments. One used patients from mental institutions in Middletown and Norwich, Connecticut. Havens is renowned as one of the first scientists to differentiate the types of hepatitis and their causes.
- Researchers in the mid-1940s had young men swallow unfiltered stool suspension to study how bacteria caused a deadly stomach disease.
- University of Minnesota researchers n the late 1940s injected eleven public service employee volunteers with malaria, then starved them for five days. Some were also made to do hard labor, causing them to lose weight. Only then were the subjects treated for malarial fevers, in a study conducted by, among others, Ancel Keys, the celebrated dietary scientist who developed K-rations for the military and the Mediterranean diet for the public.
- In a 1957 study to research the rampant Asian flu, federal researchers sprayed the virus in the noses of 23 unvaccinated inmates at Patuxent prison in Jessup, Maryland, to compare their reactions to virus-exposed inmates who had been given a new vaccine.
- Government researchers in the 1950s pumped directly gonorrhea bacteria into their urinary tracts directly through the penises of about two dozen volunteering prison inmates at a federal penitentiary in Atlanta.
The Washington Post story linked above tracks the rise of the use of such experiments and why they came to be regarded, both by the profession and the public, as unconscionable by the 1970’s. Several cautionary ethics lessons need understood, however, before this is filed away as just another example from ancient history that allows us to feel smug about how much more civilized we are today:
1. Scientists cannot be trusted. Last year, James Watson, co-discoverer of the double-helix, was reported as saying, “I think the ethics committees are out of control and that it should be put back in the hands of the doctors. There is an extraordinary amount of red tape which is slowing us down. We could go five times faster without these committees.” Watson is every bit an esteemed and famous as Salk, Havens, Keys and the others who devised the unethical experiments re-discovered by the AP. The attitudes of many in the profession still tend toward extreme utilitarianism; if they could save a million lives by experimenting on a few hundred mental patients, homeless people and prisoners, I think a large percentage of our researchers would do it, if only regulations and sanctions didn’t stand in the way. Scientists and researchers are results-oriented by training; they are drawn to utilitarianism, and easily look past the Golden Rule. To say we can’t trust them is not to impugn their integrity, but to acknowledge that they often do not see the world the way we do, and the ethical choices that seem obvious to us may not be obvious at all to them.
2. Beware “Self-validating Virtue.” This is the seductive rationalization used by good and admired people who want to do good and beneficial things, and who are willing to toss their ethics out the window to do it. Thus they judge their conduct by the perceived goodness the person doing it—themselves— rather than the other way around. A Watson or a Salk reasons, “I, a good and ethical person, have decided to do this; therefore this must be an ethical thing to do.” These rationalizations short-circuit ethical decision-making, and can allow otherwise admirable people to justify terrible things.
3. When you are behaving like a Nazi monster, that should set off ethics alarms. Many of these experiments came after the establishment of the 1947 Nuremberg Code regulating the ethics of clinical experiments on human subjects, a landmark document that was inspired by international outrage over Dr. Mengele’s sadistic experiments on concentration camp inmates. But, as the Post story notes, many “good” scientists assumed that the rules only applied to mad doctors and Nazi criminals, not legitimate researchers like them, so they ignored the regulations, which were not stringently enforced. Mengele was the Ed Wood of unethical researchers to be sure, and the fact that his experiments were especially cruel and insanely devised made it easy for American researchers to conclude that they were nothing like him: after all, he was a Nazi killer—they were trying to save lives. But Mengele’s experiments were no less violative of the human rights of his subjects than many of the studies reported by the AP were to the various mental patients and desperate prison volunteers they abused. Nazis weren’t a different species; they were human beings, and what they were capable of doing, we are capable of doing…as these studies showed. When we recoil from comparing ourselves to evildoers, we make it dangerously easy to ignore our own descent into evil.
4. We need to take the Declaration of Independence seriously. It is a ringing statement of our national and cultural values. Slavery, bigotry, unjust prosecution, excessive imprisonment, torture,exploitation, and many other deplorable actions in our past and present are unequivocally rejected and condemned by Thomas Jefferson’s words. All men (and women) have an inalienable right to their life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness…no matter how many dread diseases you can cure by taking that right away.
The reason all those experiments should never have occurred was right there all the time, if only the scientists had been paying attention.