Commission Releases New Documents on 1940's Guatamalan Experiments

The new documents released by the President's Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues on the 1,300 Guatanmalan soldiers, prostitutes, prisoners and mental patients who were deliberately infected with sexually transmitted diseases in the 1940's will turn your stomach.

Here's the story of Berta, a mental patient believed to be dying:

During the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues’ meeting today on the investigation of US researchers deliberately exposing and infecting Guatemalans with sexually transmitted diseases from 1946 to 1948, one member raised the story of Berta.

....Dr. John Charles Cutler [the principal investigator for the study] .... “put gonorrhea puss on her eyes, urethra and rectrum.” Soon after, Berta died. She was one of 83 participants who died during the course of the studies.


The Commission provides this page of questions and answers about the study.

Among the Commissions findings:

  • The researchers used no informed consent procedures and they deliberately exposed and infected people who were too vulnerable to object: children, patients in mental institutions, prisoners, and commercial sex workers.
  • More than 5,500 people in Guatemala were involved in two types of studies – one that took blood and other bodily fluids from participants, and the other that deliberately exposed and infected the participants with sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea and syphilis.
  • Experimenters in Guatemala consistently failed to act in accordance “with minimal respect of human rights.”
  • The research was sloppily done, marred by poorly thought out protocols and terrible record-keeping.
  • The research was ethically objectionable not just by today’s standards, but also by the standards of the time. In 1943, in a study involving prisoners in Terre Haute, Indiana, some of the same researchers fully briefed the prisoners and used informed consent forms.
  • The investigators deliberately kept secret its actions from people in the trial as well as the scientific communities in Guatemala and the United States.
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  • Display: Sort:
    Dr. Mengele (5.00 / 3) (#1)
    by sj on Tue Aug 30, 2011 at 01:17:06 PM EST
    wasn't as unique as people want to believe.  A lot of research is completely ammoral if not immoral.  

    How about (5.00 / 3) (#2)
    by Zorba on Tue Aug 30, 2011 at 02:23:45 PM EST
    the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment?  And the CIA's Project MKULTRA, during which LSD was administered to people without their knowledge or consent?  I'm sure there are many others.  We have a long, shameful history of experimenting on people without their informed consent.  And even with "informed consent," I'm not entirely sure that the information given to subjects is at all adequate in many cases. Are rigorous steps always taken to ensure that the subjects truly understand all the potential ramifications and that the subjects are capable of giving such consent?  Somehow, I doubt it.

    you beat me to the punch there (5.00 / 1) (#5)
    by jeffinalabama on Tue Aug 30, 2011 at 02:33:35 PM EST
    Zorba. I use the Tuskeegee experiment as an example of compromised research ethics.

    Shameful that these happened. Impossible today for any university-based research to be so unethical, at least here in the USA, where human subject review boards are powerful entities.  

    But a drug company or other private firm doesn't have the same constraints. The government is supposed to... but then the example of extraordinary renditions emerges, so trusting the government may not be best.

    Is there any wonder that certain ethnic groups have distrust in the government and academics who do research?

    Dick Gregory, about 25 years ago in a speech I attended, accused the federal government of creating AIDS. While not correct, he did mention areas close to where the CIA was supposed to have created and made available crack cocaine.

    I don't think conspiracy theories could come up with either MK ultra or the venereal disease experiments. Makes me think that Kennedy's 'magic bullet' is a crock as well.


    I have always been unable to understand the (none / 0) (#13)
    by jimakaPPJ on Tue Aug 30, 2011 at 05:10:29 PM EST
    ethics of giving a placebo to one person and the drug to another person in blind studies.

    Assuming the drug is effective the placebo user is as condemned to death as the Tuskeegee people were.

    The only difference is that at Tuskeegee the patient didn't know they were in a study.

    Both are wrong.


    Blind studies (person involved (none / 0) (#20)
    by KeysDan on Tue Aug 30, 2011 at 08:23:06 PM EST
    does not know) or double blind studies (neither the person involved nor the investigator knows--just a third party) are a critical part of the scientific method for drug evaluation.  In human drug studies it is essential to forestall placebo bias, observer bias or conscious deception. Moreover, unintentional physical cues can also invalidate the study.

    The blind studies provide an important control group.  The studies are to ascertain both efficacy and side effects. Effectiveness may be outweighed by deleterious effects.  And effectiveness is not assumed.   The rigor of the studies does require protocols and oversight that is grounded in ethical behavior.  Drug studies have been suspended when either the effectiveness or side effects are evident.  Of course, drug studies on humans cannot be used in all cases such as in determining LD 50's (the lethal dose in 50 percent of the trial group).  For that we rely on mice or rats, unless we are talking about a researcher such as Josef Mengele.  


    I am sure the person (none / 0) (#21)
    by jimakaPPJ on Tue Aug 30, 2011 at 09:11:37 PM EST
    getting the placebo and dying is cheered with the thought of all the ethics involved.

    Look, I get the arguments.

    I just don't see why a 1000 or so people couldn't be given the drug and then letting the results speak for themselves.

    a. The person got better.

    b. The person got worse.


    You're wrong about that (none / 0) (#24)
    by gyrfalcon on Wed Aug 31, 2011 at 01:47:41 AM EST
    I know several people with serious diseases who participated in such blind trials.  They were hugely cheered by the fact that if they were unlucky and got the placebo (two did, one didn't), their terrible experience of disease would at least serve the interests of saving somebody else's life.

    That's good (none / 0) (#33)
    by jimakaPPJ on Wed Aug 31, 2011 at 06:15:28 PM EST
    but I think your friends are in a small minority.

    First you need to fine one thousand (none / 0) (#25)
    by Fabian on Wed Aug 31, 2011 at 09:16:00 AM EST
    patients with the same disease and in about the same stage of that disease....

    Which is fine and dandy with something far too common like heart disease or Type 2 Diabetes, but for something relatively rare one thousand is a very large number.

    Which is exactly why the "orphan diseases" have such problems getting proper research - not enough patients for studies.  Mind you this is enough patients who can be found, contacted and voluntarily participate in studies.


    True, (none / 0) (#26)
    by KeysDan on Wed Aug 31, 2011 at 10:02:30 AM EST
    and a non-blinded study would be likely to yield unreliable and inconclusive results.  The confidence in the outcomes could not be assured since drug actions on biological systems are rarely clear cut (e.g. cured v death).   End points such as "better" or "worse" are highly subjective, especially if the measure is how do you feel (neurologic etiology) rather than improvement in disease-related laboratory values (T-cells, or LDH).  Or in matters of survival, better may mean months, or just a better quality of remaining time.  The statistics still need to be professionally interpreted.

    Blind/Double blind studies deploy science based on the assumption that any differences in treatments (placebo v drug) are due to chance and chance alone.  Collection of the data and its statistical treatment permits acceptance or rejection (null hypothesis) along with confidence levels say, 95 percent with one standard deviation.  

    For too long, various nostrums have been bruited about on the basis of non-scientific impressions, to the detriment of the public's health.  And, of course, there is the additional "contamination" of results in the selection of the study pool, be that misdiagnosis (showing up as a cure) and, as you point out, different stages of disease progression.   Now, we have not talked about safety of the drugs, which is also a part of the scientific methods used in drug studies.


    As I said (none / 0) (#34)
    by jimakaPPJ on Wed Aug 31, 2011 at 06:20:10 PM EST
    I understand the arguments, but I just don't see how anyone can call the studies ethical.

    Doesn't "First do no harm" apply?

    I may over simplify, but I think you make it too complicated.

    And the results, looking at the number of drugs that have had to be withdrawn, etc., don't argue well for the method.


    I am not presenting (none / 0) (#35)
    by KeysDan on Wed Aug 31, 2011 at 06:35:54 PM EST
    arguments, but rather, scientific methods..   Yes, some drugs are withdrawn subsequently, since some problems may take a while to develop.   All the more reason for the use of scientific tools to optimize the likelihood of effectiveness and safety.  Yes,  you do simplify a complex subject.

    Do No Harm would mean NO studies (none / 0) (#40)
    by Fabian on Wed Sep 07, 2011 at 05:37:25 AM EST
    since every drug has "desired effects" and "undesired effects".

    The effective, popular, widely prescribed statin drugs?

    They have liver damage as a potential "undesired effect".  

    Stronger, more effective drugs?  Chemotherapy, psychoactive and so on?  TONS of undesired effects, some of them are not in the single digit % range, but so prevalent that when I looked up "weight gain" & "psychoactive drugs" I found out that virtually EVERY class of antidepressant causes weight gain, some to the point of morbid obesity.

    Every single drug has costs and benefits.  How much are you willing to pay for the benefits?


    How About the Daily Experiements... (5.00 / 0) (#12)
    by ScottW714 on Tue Aug 30, 2011 at 04:18:11 PM EST
     ...drug companies perform on college students ?

    When I had psyche classes, they were always offering money to take some pill or another.  Granted there a 50% chance your taking a placebo, but for like $50 you can get a college kid to take anything and sign their rights away.

    I had a friend that lived off these experiments and I know GD well they aren't informing anyone of the know bad reactions.  

    My point is human experimentation is alive and well in the US, and whether it's informed is certainly being hashed out in the courts.

    In regards to a study that anti-depressants actually increase suicide rate for people under 25:

    One of the scientists behind the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) study said, "It doesn't mean that these drugs shouldn't be given to young adults but you have to think about the risks and the benefits. The findings tell you to watch people carefully. If someone on antidepressants talks of being suicidal, it may actually be due to the drugs."

    Awesome, I feel better already.

    It's not as horrific, but the end result is the same, dead is dead.


    I think that example is actually a hard one (5.00 / 1) (#18)
    by andgarden on Tue Aug 30, 2011 at 06:04:18 PM EST
    Clinical trials of new medications are important. And people take jobs that are potentially injurious to their health all the time (e.g., manual labor).

    No Problem With Studies... (none / 0) (#27)
    by ScottW714 on Wed Aug 31, 2011 at 10:06:49 AM EST
     ...so long as they don't forget to mention the known side effects.

    If I decide to lay shingles, I know there is a good possibility that I will fall, plus there is workers comp if I do.  So not really comparable.


    The Guatemalan experiment was an offshoot (5.00 / 0) (#17)
    by MKS on Tue Aug 30, 2011 at 05:54:27 PM EST
    of the Tuskegee experiment...

    No one can do that (none / 0) (#4)
    by Abdul Abulbul Amir on Tue Aug 30, 2011 at 02:32:23 PM EST

    ...truly understand all the potential ramifications...

    Sorry but predicting the future is not an exact science.


    Abdul, in the Tuskeegee (5.00 / 3) (#6)
    by jeffinalabama on Tue Aug 30, 2011 at 02:36:37 PM EST
    case, the effects of tertiary syphilis had been documented for years. The progression of untreated syphilis resulted in death, and that was well-known. The experiment existed to see what happened before death, without the subjects knowing they were part of an experiment, and without the subjects getting antibiotics that could have cured them.

    Agreed 100% (none / 0) (#7)
    by Abdul Abulbul Amir on Tue Aug 30, 2011 at 02:50:37 PM EST
    But that is different than being able to "truly understand all the potential ramifications."

    Not do defend what went on there in the slightest, but the potential of every experiment or diet or new food is death.  That new peanut butter will kill some people.

    There is a difference between being unable to detail every possible outcome, and this case where the most likely outcome was hidden from the human guinea pigs.



    I'll give you (5.00 / 1) (#8)
    by Zorba on Tue Aug 30, 2011 at 03:00:35 PM EST
    the "all," but far too often, the potential side effects or end results are way too minimized.

    The Problem Is and Will Always Be... (5.00 / 2) (#10)
    by ScottW714 on Tue Aug 30, 2011 at 03:59:52 PM EST
    ... what they already know, yet pretend not to.

    Pretty sure in the above, they all knew people were going to suffer horribly and that is why the consent was not an option.  No one in their right mind would consent to getting a STD in their eyes just to see what happens.

    Quit trying to sidetrack this into some idiotic mild rash or some other simple side effect, these were horrible crimes against humanity and their lack of record keeping leads me to believe they didn't care about the actual results beyond some really sick amusement.

    These were experiments as much as a kids putting a firecracker in a frog, "just to see what happens" are experiments.  No legitimate science community would consider them experiments, just cruel actions by people that had the power to do so.


    Lets not forget... (none / 0) (#28)
    by kdog on Wed Aug 31, 2011 at 10:13:01 AM EST
    the really sick eugenics and forced sterilization business of the not so distant past, here and abroad...an argument for a small government of limited powers if I ever heard one.

    Hillary uncovered this (5.00 / 2) (#11)
    by MKS on Tue Aug 30, 2011 at 04:10:43 PM EST
    and made it public recently as Secretary of State--just as she did in the 1990s with the CIA involvement in the ovethrow of the Democracy there....

    Uh, this has been public well before Hillary (none / 0) (#14)
    by jimakaPPJ on Tue Aug 30, 2011 at 05:11:58 PM EST
    In fact, I think I first read about here years ago.

    Nope (none / 0) (#15)
    by MKS on Tue Aug 30, 2011 at 05:41:45 PM EST
    This was publicized on October 1, 2010. Link I do follow the history of Guatemala..... Just a reflexive shot at Hillary?

    Nope, I thought she was the better (none / 0) (#22)
    by jimakaPPJ on Tue Aug 30, 2011 at 09:13:23 PM EST

    Just a comment re accuracy.


    and I was speaking of (none / 0) (#23)
    by jimakaPPJ on Tue Aug 30, 2011 at 09:17:33 PM EST
    Tuskeegee... You are speaking of Guatamalan Experiments...

    That makes no sense at all (none / 0) (#29)
    by Yman on Wed Aug 31, 2011 at 10:19:59 AM EST
    and I was speaking of Tuskeegee... You are speaking of Guatamalan Experiments...

    1.  Both the article and MKS's post were clearly discussing the Guatamalan experiments, not Tuskeegee.  In fact, neither one even mentions Tuskeegee.

    2.  The only way you "first read about it (Tuskeegee) here" was if you were living in a cave for the past 40 years.  The Tuskeegee experiments were first revealed in 1972.  Since then, it was reported in every major newspaper, discussed in every school, magazines, newspapers, blogs, television shows, etc., etc.

    The Guatamalan experiments, OTOH, weren't discovered until 2005 or 2006, and weren't publicly revealed until 2010.

    Hi Shadow! (none / 0) (#32)
    by jimakaPPJ on Wed Aug 31, 2011 at 06:13:11 PM EST
    Thanks for dropping by and engaging in a personal attack that proves what a nasty person you are!

    BTW - See Jeffinalabama's comments...

    But that won't slow you down. You are a true stalker. I am actually starting to be concerned for my personal safety.


    What was personal? (none / 0) (#36)
    by Yman on Wed Aug 31, 2011 at 09:25:28 PM EST
    I was just stating the facts in response to your claim.  It's difficult to believe that anyone could live through the 70s, 80s, 90s and part of the 00s and first hear about the Tuskegee experiment here at TL.

    OTOH - maybe you did.

    BTW - I saw Jeff's comment, but you weren't responding to his comment.  You were responding to MKS, who was discussing the article (the Guatamalan experiment).


    You are a stalker. (none / 0) (#38)
    by jimakaPPJ on Thu Sep 01, 2011 at 08:35:39 PM EST
    You are obsessed with my comments. You can't resist making personal attacks and claims.

    Awe, c'mon Jim ... (none / 0) (#39)
    by Yman on Thu Sep 01, 2011 at 08:56:29 PM EST
    Afraid of anonymous posts on the internet?!?

    That's funny.


    The crimes of FDR just keep coming (none / 0) (#3)
    by Abdul Abulbul Amir on Tue Aug 30, 2011 at 02:30:10 PM EST

    THAT is what you take away from this? (5.00 / 1) (#9)
    by sj on Tue Aug 30, 2011 at 03:49:50 PM EST
    No wonder you get such short shrift here.

    FDR?!? (5.00 / 1) (#16)
    by Yman on Tue Aug 30, 2011 at 05:44:40 PM EST
    The experiments occurred from 1946 through 1948.

    But wingers do love to blame FDR for everything, sooooo ...


    Tuskegee started under Hoover (5.00 / 0) (#19)
    by Towanda on Tue Aug 30, 2011 at 06:31:13 PM EST
    and continued through Ike and Nixon as well, along with Dem presidents.  As for the Guatemala study by Cutler, he was promoted for it to Assistant Surgeon General by Ike.  Etc.

    Far more useful would be to focus on funding for enforcement of, and fighting deregulation of, the laws that were put in place -- under Nixon, but credit also goes to others in Congress, of course, as well as those who pressured Congress -- for protocols for human subjects research.

    How is that going?  Do you know?


    And the admistartion (none / 0) (#30)
    by Abdul Abulbul Amir on Wed Aug 31, 2011 at 01:36:57 PM EST

    that was in office the longest during that time was FDR's.

    And your point? (5.00 / 1) (#31)
    by Yman on Wed Aug 31, 2011 at 01:54:27 PM EST
    So what?  The experiment (begun under Hoover) lasted four decades.  FDR was "in office the longest" simply because he was the only four-term President and his terms fell during that period.  The length of his terms makes these "FDR's crimes"?  Did FDR have anything to do with the Nicaraguan experiments (the subject of this article)?  Do you have the slightest bit of evidence of his knowledge (let alone culpability) in the experiments, or was it just a chance for a winger to try to attack FDR?

    (That last one is rhetorical ... since the answer is obvious).