FEBRUARY 28, 2013
ATLANTA -In the fall of 2010, President Barack Obama directed the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to conduct an investigation into the newly discovered human subject research conducted in Guatemala between 1946 and 1948. This fall, Georgia State law students gathered to learn more about the investigation from one of the commission’s Senior Advisors, Georgia State University College of Law Professor Paul Lombardo.
As the commission’s report, “Ethically Impossible”: STD Research in Guatemala from 1946 to 1948, exposes, researchers in the U.S. Public Health Service traveled to Guatemala over six decades ago to conduct research on sexually transmitted diseases. In the lingering twilight of World War II, the United States was hard-pressed for further information on the effectiveness of penicillin when used to treat syphilis and other venereal diseases. As noted by a New York Times article published in 1947, such information would require experiments involving intentional exposure to syphilis. The article further observed that such experimentation would be “ethically impossible.”
Despite the Times’ observation, such research commenced in Guatemala in 1946, with the cooperation of the Guatemalan government and the support of institutional leaders of the U.S. Public Health Service, National Research Council, and the National Institute of Health. In all, the study involved over 5,000 people, including children, elders, prisoners, psychiatric patients, United States soldiers, and commercial sex workers. Approximately 1,000 of these individuals were actively infected with syphilis, gonorrhea, or cancroid. Further serology experiments continued through 1953.
“I remember learning about the Tuskegee Syphilis Study in Professor Wolf’s Human Subject Research course last semester,” said law student Sarah Ketchie, JD ‘13. “When we later learned that another, possibly worse, study had been discovered just the year before, I couldn’t believe that there could be a study more infamous than Tuskegee. The more I learn about these experiments in Guatemala, the more I realize how wrong I was.”
“Many of the same doctors who planned the Public Health Service experiments in Guatemala were also involved in the Tuskegee studies. But unlike Tuskegee, the research in Guatemala was intentionally hidden from the public, and even omitted from medical publications. We are just beginning to understand what happened in Guatemala, and how it could remain a secret for so long,” said Lombardo.
Lombardo is teaching a course this spring with a focus on the Guatemala STD studies. “I look forward to taking this class,” said Ketchie. “In a time in which international human subject research within vulnerable populations is both more profitable and convenient than conducting research at home, it’s important to look back at situations like the experiments in Guatemala, learn how such things could happen, and hopefully learn how to prevent them from ever happening again.”
Stacie P. Kershner, JD
Associate Director, Center for Law, Health & Society