(CN) - American scientists infected hundreds of Guatemalans with syphilis in a series of nonconsensual medical tests sanctioned by the U.S. government, a class action filed Monday claims in Washington, D.C. Some experiments focused on orphaned children.
The government began conducting these experiments in Guatemala beginning in 1946 despite growing contempt over similar practices uncovered in Nazi concentration camps and on American soil, according to the federal complaint.
During the 40 years that the Venereal Disease Research Laboratory within the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) conducted limited experiments on black men already infected with syphilis in Tuskegee, Ala., it also secretly infected other human subjects. The PHS set its sights on Guatemala after unsuccessfully trying to infect prisoners at a Terre Haute, Ind., federal penitentiary with gonorrhea, according to the complaint.
"The medical team and U.S. entities took advantage of the fact that ethical limitations in the United States were enforced, while in Guatemala, they were not," according to the complaint. "But, as the parties involved fully recognized, these ethical limitations were not unique to the United States, nor did they apply only on U.S. soil; the ethical limitations were part of international law and, as such, transcend any particular country and apply to humans everywhere. Nuremberg made abundantly clear that all humans have the right to be free from nonconsensual medical experimentation. The medical team and U.S. entities involved unquestionably violated that right by going to a country where they were less likely to be caught or punished for engaging in unethical practices. Trying to escape the law by violating it in a country known for weak enforcement is reprehensible."
Project leaders selected Guatemala because they carried "racialized assumptions about syphilis ... presuming that the disease was more frequent in those of Latin descent than in others," according to the complaint.
"From their offices in the United States, PHS 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 complaint states. "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."
Manuel Gudiel Garcia and six other named plaintiffs filed the suit on behalf of thousands of Guatemalans affected by the experimentation. "The plaintiffs believe that there are thousands of potential class members; the nonconsensual human medical experimentation involved at least 700 test subjects and thousands of others were impacted as a result of defendants' nonconsensual human medical experimentation," according to the complaint.
The class claims that PHS performed the experimentation in Guatemala to study the effects of penicillin treatments and the most effective way to infect a person with the disease, "an experiment that would not have been permitted in the United States."
Though penicillin was being widely used in the post-World War II era to cure syphilis, doctors hoped to discover something akin to a morning-after cream that could be applied directly after possible exposure.
The class claims that, between 1946 and 1948, Assistant Surgeon General Dr. John Charles Cutler led the Guatemala project in concert with Guatemalan officials and PHS-trained doctors. It remains uncertain whether the project actually ended in 1948 as officially reported, according to the complaint.