The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment is regarded as a clinical study that was conducted on African American participants in the period between 1932 and 1972. This experiment provides one of the most infamous evidence of medical research abuse in United States' history. In this study, the U.S. Public Health Service worked in collaboration with Tuskegee University to commence a long-term examination of untreated syphilis in a group of 600 impoverished African Americans. In compensation for participating in the study, the U.S. Public Health Service used the promise of free food, free medical care, and free burial insurance. It is also established that the participants were informed that the study would last for 6 months, but it continued for 40 years (Lombardo & Dorr, 2006). This discussion will provide details of the Tuskegee study, including details about its unethical nature and the laws it subsequently informed.
The Tuskegee study of untreated syphilis commenced in 1932 with the government working in collaboration with Alabama-based Tuskegee University, an institution that traditionally enrolled African American students. The participants selected for this study belonged to the lower socioeconomic demographic from Macom County of Alabama. Out of the 600 participants in this research, 399 had previously contracted syphilis while 201 had not (Gray, 1998). The objective of the study was to observe the natural history of untreated syphilis. This should explain why penicillin was not administered on the patients, even after it was acknowledged as an effective cure for the disease in 1940.
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The Tuskegee experiment was unjustified for several reasons. Most importantly, the participants were not truthfully informed about the objective of the study. Instead, they were informed that they were being treated for bad blood, a phrase used to distinguish a number of illnesses that affected members of the African American community in the region. Moreover, the researchers knowledgeably failed/refused to provide treatment to the sick participants of the study and continued to observe them long after funding for the experiment failed. The researchers also took advantage of participants’ ignorance and failed to provide them with information about penicillin, while restricting them from seeking medical attention through syphilis treatment programs. As Gray (1998) acknowledges, the researchers had the long-term goal of following the syphilis-infected participants until autopsy.
The repercussions of this study ranged wide, with 28 participants dying of syphilis, 100 succumbing to complications related to syphilis, 40 wives getting infected, and 19 children being born with congenital syphilis (Gray 1998; Brandt, 1978). The socioeconomic status of this group of participants placed the patients at risk as they would not be able to afford proper healthcare. Thus, having been misinformed by the nation’s public health service that they would be afforded free healthcare and free treatment for ‘bad blood’, participants were reluctant to seek treatment for syphilis. It is without the efforts of whistleblower Peter Buxtun that the study would have continued in secrecy at the expense of the safety and welfare of Macom’s African American community.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that medical ethics were violated in this experiment. For instance, rather than using informed consent, researchers intimidated participants into believing that participating in the study was their only hope for survival. Secondly, the offer for free funeral insurance was not a reward for participation but a tactic to attract terminally ill men into participating (Brandt, 1978). The refusal by researchers to administer treatment to the patients upon the discovery of penicillin as a cure for syphilis was also in violation of medical ethics. Lombordo and Dorr (2006) further provide substantial evidence to suggest that the experiment was motivated by eugenics research. Following Peter Buxtun’s intervention and public awareness of the experiment, congress responded by passing the National Research Act, which seeks to protect human subjects in biomedical and behavioral research. The turn of events also inspired the practice of obtaining informed consent from research participants before commencing studies.
The Tuskegee experiment demonstrates the impact that failure to comply with ethics in research could have on human subjects. With this study having such drastic outcomes the need to uphold human dignity in human research is unquestionable. Moreover, it is imperative for researchers to obtain consent from participants and to share truthful information about the experiment, including the procedures that they intend to pursue. Needless to say, experiments of this nature must not be conducted on living human subjects, especially by a government agency.
Brandt, A. M. (1978). Racism and research: the case of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Hastings Center Report , 21-29.
Gray, F. D. (1998). The Tuskegee Syphilis Study: The real story and beyond . Montgomery, AL: NewSouth Books.
Lombardo, P. A., & Dorr, G. M. (2006). Eugenics, medical education, and the Public Health Service: Another perspective on the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. Bulletin of the History of Medicine , 80 (2), 291-316.