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Guatemalans sue U.S. over medical experiments

By the CNN Wire Staff
Then-U.S. President Bill Clinton apologized in 1997 to victims of a 40-year U.S. syphilis experiment program.
Then-U.S. President Bill Clinton apologized in 1997 to victims of a 40-year U.S. syphilis experiment program.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Between 1946 and 1948, Americans carried out medical experiments on Guatemalans
  • The experiments involved infecting some with syphilis
  • The U.S. government has apologized, but did not settle with the plaintiffs
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(CNN) -- A group of Guatemalans who were infected with syphilis during U.S. human experiments and their heirs have filed a lawsuit against U.S. health officials.

The class action lawsuit, filed this week, alleges that the U.S. government violated a number of national and international laws when it carried out the experiments in Guatemala between 1946 and 1948.

Law firms representing the victims said the United States intentionally infected the Guatemalans in an effort to study the effects of the disease.

One lawyer for the Guatemalans, Piper Hendricks, had said last week that she hoped an agreement would be reached that would avoid litigation and a trial.

The United States has apologized for the experiments, but did not reach a settlement with the plaintiffs.

The U.S. government "knowingly engaged in non-consensual human medical experimentation on highly vulnerable populations" that resulted in harm, the lawsuit alleges.

"From their offices in the United States, (Public Health Service) and other U.S. entities decided to seek a location where they would be able to carry out more invasive methods of inoculation without ethical scrutiny," the court document states.

The lawsuit compares the project to the Tuskegee syphilis experiment in Alabama. During the 40-year study that began in 1932, doctors observed how the disease progressed in about 400 poor African-Americans who already had syphilis. The men were never told they had the disease and were never treated for it. The test subjects received free medical testing, meals and burial insurance.

"This decision to move to Guatemala was part of a deliberate plan to continue the Tuskegee testing offshore, where it would not be subject to the same level of oversight as in the United States," the lawsuit says.

In the experiments, consent was never given by the subjects, only by the institutions that housed them, the Guatemalans argue.

The American doctors conducted experiments on Guatemalan prison inmates, children at an orphanage, and people at a mental health institution.

"The medical team started with inmates in the national penitentiary, using American taxpayer money to hire prostitutes who tested positive for syphilis or gonorrhea to offer sexual services to inmates," the lawsuit recounts.

When the researchers recorded several false positives on their testing, they needed to conduct a battery of blood tests on an uninfected group to find out what was causing the wrong results. They turned their attention to an orphanage, where they carried out blood work on children without their consent, the lawsuit says.

Finally, the testing resumed on mental patients, many of whom were inoculated with syphilis using methods that would be "unequivocally impermissible" in the United States, the document states.

The Obama administration acknowledged the experiments in October.

"Although these events occurred more than 64 years ago, we are outraged that such reprehensible research could have occurred under the guise of public health," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a joint statement. "We deeply regret that it happened, and we apologize to all the individuals who were affected by such abhorrent research practices."

Sebelius is named in the lawsuit, as she holds a position whose predecessors were involved in the experiments.

While the complaint mentions that there were at least 700 test subjects, it lists only seven plaintiffs -- all are either the direct victims of the testing or their legal heirs.

 
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