(“The Tuskegee Timeline”)
What’s the story?
The Tuskegee syphilis experiment was conducted by the US Public Health Service (PHS) for 40 years between 1932 to 1972 in Alabama. The experiment involved 600 black males – 399 with syphilis and 201 who did not have the disease. In exchange for taking part in the study and to motivate the subjects, the PHS provided the men with free medical exams, free meals, and burial insurance (“The Tuskegee Timeline”).
In the experiment, subjects were injected with syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that could cause serious complications when left untreated (“Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs)”). The doctors, however, had no intention of curing them at all and sacrificed more than 100 lives at the end of the experiment (“The Tuskegee Timeline”).
During the course of the experiment, all subjects were told that they were being treated with “bad blood” and none was aware of what was being done to their bodies. The experiment finally came to an end when the act was exposed to the public after a confidential file leaked from the US government. More than 20 years later, President Clinton apologized to the survivors of this experiment on behalf of the nation, for conducting such unethical and discriminatory experiment. (“The Tuskegee Timeline”)
(“Families of Syphilis Study Victims Remember President Clinton Apology.”)
What were they trying to find out?
The purpose of the experiment was to find out how syphilis affected blacks as opposed to whites. The experimenters were trying to test the theory that whites experienced more neurological complications from syphilis while blacks were more vulnerable to cardiovascular damage.
However, how this knowledge would have changed the clinical treatment of syphilis is still left uncertain. After the experiment was over, one of the experimenters reported that “nothing learned will prevent, find, or cure a single case of infectious syphilis or bring us closer to our basic mission of controlling venereal disease in the United States.” Although the PHS claimed the study to be a great contribution to the research of syphilis, from the outset its actual benefits were hazy. Moreover, when the experiment was brought to the attention of the media in 1972, news anchor Harry Reasoner described it as an experiment that “used human beings as laboratory animals in a long and inefficient study of how long it takes syphilis to kill someone” (“The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment”).
Was this ethical?
The Tuskegee syphilis experiment was highly unethical. On top of conducting such harmful experiment on human bodies, the experimenters deceived the test subjects by faking the purpose of the experiment. As a result of this unethical experiment, lives of more than 100 people were taken away and many suffered through the after-effect of the disease. What the subjects believed to be a free medical treatment for their “bad blood” turned out to be a research to investigate the results of a serious disease. The experiment has ruined the lives and health of its subjects.
(“The Tuskegee Timeline”)
Moreover, another unethical factor of this experiment is that the PHS picked subjects based on their social standings. Most of the test subjects were illiterate farmers from one of the poorest counties in Alabama, who have never even seen a doctor before. The PHS took advantage of these people’s weaknesses and manipulated them into cooperating in the experiment. In such ways, the PHS has disregarded these people’s human rights by conducting the experiment although fully aware of its illegality and unethical-ness.
How else could the information have been gathered?
This experiment would have been less unethical if the information was collected from subjects who were already suffering from the disease. In the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, more than 200 healthy people were forced to suffer from syphilis after receiving injections by the doctors. Since there were nearly 400 other subjects who already had the disease, the experimenters should have only done the research with those people. That way, there would not be any major harms caused by the experiment besides the progression of the disease from having no treatment given.
Lastly, the subjects should be chosen randomly to make the test more ethical. They should not be chosen based on wealth or social status.
“Families of Syphilis Study Victims Remember President Clinton Apology.”Tuskegee University. N.p., 2016. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.
“Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs).” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. N.p., 18 Feb. 2016. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.
“The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.” Infoplease. N.p., 2016. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.
“The Tuskegee Timeline.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. N.p., 19 Feb. 2016. Web. 19 Apr. 2016.