Sixty-four years after it sent research teams into the Central American nation of Guatemala and used the population there as guinea pigs in a study of venereal diseases, the government of the United States last week issued an official apology.

The apology was for a 1946-48 research study that involved purposeful infection of people in Guatemala with sexually transmitted diseases such as syphillis.

The U.S. study began only a year after similar studies by Nazi “doctors” came to a halt as a network of concentration camps across Europe was shut down at the end of the World War II.

A statement issued Oct. 1 by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius called the action “reprehensible.”

“We deeply regret that it happened, and we apologize to all the individuals who were affected by such abhorrent research practices,” their statement said. “The conduct exhibited during the study does not represent the values of the United States, or our commitment to human dignity and great respect for the people of Guatemala.”

Late Friday, the White House said President Obama planned to call Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom to personally apologize for American scientists deliberately infecting Guatemalan prisoners with syphilis.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters that the news of the 1946-48 events was “shocking, it’s tragic, it’s reprehensible.”

The experiments were discovered by a Wellesley College medical historian. The studies claimed to test the effectiveness of penicillin.

The Nazi-like experiments were labelled the Sexually Transmitted Disease Inoculation Study of 1946-1948.

“The study is a sad reminder that adequate human subject safeguards did not exist a half-century ago,” the statement by Clinton and Sebelius said. “Today, the regulations that govern U.S. funded human medical research prohibit these kinds of appalling violations.”

Clinton and Sebelius said the United States is launching an investigation and also convening a group of international experts to review and report on the most effective methods to make sure all human medical research worldwide meets rigorous ethical standards.

“As we move forward to better understand this appalling event, we reaffirm the importance of our relationship with Guatemala, and our respect for the Guatemalan people, as well as outr commitment to the highest standares of ethics in medical research,” the U.S. statement said.



John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward, as a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee, and as an activist in the union's campaign to win public support for Wal-Mart workers. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.