WASHINGTON (CN) – The United States has immunity from a class action related to the government-sponsored infection of hundreds of Guatemalans with syphilis, a federal judge ruled, calling the study “a deeply troubling chapter in our nation’s history.”
During the 40 years that the Venereal Disease Research Laboratory within the U.S. Public Health Service conducted limited experiments on black men already infected with syphilis in Tuskegee, Ala., it also secretly infected other human subjects. The agency set its sights on Guatemala after unsuccessfully trying to infect prisoners at a Terre Haute, Ind., federal penitentiary with gonorrhea, according to the March 2011 complaint.
A Presidential Commission of the Study of Bioethical Issues, convened by President Barack Obama in 2010, confirmed these claims.
“From 1946 to 1953, officials from the United States Public Health Service and the Pan American Sanitary Bureau conducted medical studies in Guatemala that ‘involved deliberate infection of people with sexually transmitted diseases (“STDs”) without their consent,'” the complaint states, quoting the commission’s report.
U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton said the facts troubled him but that he had no choice but to dismiss the claims.
“As the plaintiffs assert, and the defendants acknowledge, the Guatemala Study is a deeply troubling chapter in our nation’s history,” Walton wrote. “Yet … this court is powerless to provide any redress to the plaintiffs. Their pleas are more appropriately directed to the political branches of our government, who, if they choose, have the ability to grant some modicum of relief to those affected by the Guatemala Study.”
The surviving victims of the study and the heirs of the dead filed the complaint against several U.S. officials including U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Surgeon General Regina Benjamin and Mirta Roses Periago, director of the Pan-American Health Organization, formally the Pan-American Sanitary Bureau.
“While implicitly acknowledging that none of the nine defendants had any involvement in the Guatemala Study, which ended in the 1950s, the plaintiffs maintain that the defendants ‘are liable under the principles of successor liability for the acts of their predecessor office-holders,'” according to the court.
The start of the Guatemala study in 1946 belied growing contempt over similar experiments conducted in Nazi concentration camps around that time.
Scientists allegedly orchestrated the experiments to study penicillin treatments, while hoping to discover another cure.
Among hundreds of Guatemalan test subjects were 438 orphaned children, the class claimed.
Though statutory and sovereign immunity prevents the court from granting relief, Judge Walton urged the government to make things right for the victims of the study.
“It appears that those remedial efforts may be forthcoming, based on the United States’ representation to the court that it ‘is committed to taking appropriate steps to address’ the ‘terrible wrong[s]’ that occurred in Guatemala,” Walton wrote. “This lawsuit, however, is simply not the appropriate vehicle for remedying those wrongs.”
The Guatemala experimentation was brought to light by Professor Susan Reverby, a medical historian with Wellesley College. President Barack Obama and two Cabinet secretaries apologized to the Guatemalan government and people in October 2010.