Last October, the United States government revealed documents pertaining to medical experiments it conducted between 1946 and 1948 in which doctors infected soldiers, prisoners and mental patients in Guatemala with syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases. Upon being briefed about the incidents, President Barack Obama launched a further investigation into the matter; details released on Aug. 29 showed that 1,300 Guatemalans were infected in a study scientists knew was unethical.
According to BBC News, the experiment was discovered by Professor Susan Reverby at Wellesley College as she researched links between the infamous Tuskegee syphilis doctor and Guatemalan studies with penicillin.
“At a time when so much medical research is global, it behooves us to take account of what has been done in the past by American researchers in other countries,” said Reverby in a Washington Post article last year.
There is significant evidence to conclude that there was collaboration between U.S. and Guatemalan authorities at the time of the tests. However, it is believed that authorities in Guatemala were unaware of the deadly nature of the injections U.S. doctors were providing, Carlos Mejia, a member of the commission established by the Guatemalan government to investigate the experiments, told BBC.
According to reports, concentrations of bacteria were injected into the eyes, the central nervous system and male genitals in some instances; and in other instances, sexual acts were encouraged between male prisoners and diseased prostitutes.
“It took place in the context in which they [the United States] were judging the German doctors who had been experimenting with typhus and malaria on prisoners of war. The Nazis used Poles, Russians and Jews, while the Americans made almost the same use of Guatemalans,” Mejia told BBC.
In recent years, there have been reports of several other instances of horrific government testing done on physically and mentally disabled hospital patients and prisoners in the United States. A story published by The Associated Press in February detailed such experiments, including giving hepatitis to mental patients in Connecticut, squirting a pandemic flu virus up the noses of prisoners in Maryland and injecting cancer cells into chronically ill people at a New York hospital.
In Tuskegee, Ala., in the 1930s a group of 399 black men with syphilis were studied by a team of doctors as the disease progressed. Despite the availability of treatment, the men — who thought they were being treated for “bad blood” — received no proper medical care as doctors simply documented the sickness over time. The study went on for about 40 years.
In another instance, preceding the consentless infection of many of the Guatemalans, the government preformed a similar test in an Indiana prison. Researchers exposed 241 inmates in Terre Haute Prison to gonorrhea in 1943 and 1944. The researchers explained the experiments in advance in detail and experimented only on prisoners who volunteered.
Other government projects included feeding unsuspecting citizens large doses of LSD or marijuana to test the effects of the substances and the ability to use them for mind-control. Projects known under guises such as Operation Midnight Climax and MK-ULTRA, very similar to practices in the history of the Soviet Union, took place over the course of several decades.
A 1977 Time article tells the story of taxpayer-funded, CIA-run inner-city brothels where patrons were drugged by prostitutes (who were on CIA payroll) and then observed from behind mirrored glass during Midnight Climax. The experiment known as Project MK-ULTRA, subjected unaware humans to experiments with drugs such as LSD and barbiturates, hypnosis and (some reports indicate) radiological and biological agents. In 1973, CIA Director Richard Helms ordered all documents from Project MK-ULTRA destroyed, although The New York Times revealed the cover-up the following year.
The CIA spent nearly $20 million, enlisting the services of researchers at more than 30 universities to conduct experiments on subjects without their knowledge. Some of the research was also performed in Canada. Some people believe the goal of the program was to create a mind-control system by which the CIA could program people to conduct assassinations and may have had severe unintended consequences.
The discoveries of the unethical testing brings forth questions about other similar instances and the possibility that government and pharmaceutical companies may be baiting citizens into unwittingly acting as guinea pigs in dangerous experiments today. Skepticism surrounding several vaccines — many of which are quickly approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration despite often debilitating side effects — has led organizations such as the National Vaccine Information Center to fight against government-mandated inoculation.