Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Medical experimentation and the American overthrow of Guatamalan democracy


Amy Gutmann, an old friend from Princeton and currently, President of the University of Pennsylvania has been leading a commission appointed by President Obama to look into the infection of Guatemalans with syphilis by American doctors after World War II. In the article below, she names the criminality of and "historic injustice" committed by the doctors who knew that they could not do to white Americans what they could do in Guatemala.* As in the Tuskegee and other experiments on blacks, in the 1940s through '70s (extended into widespread American experimentation on prisoners, against which I participated in a campaign at UCLA in 1974**), nonwhites were the favored subject for such experimentation. Dr. John C. Cutler, an American Mengele, played a leading role in both the Guatemala and Tuskegee "experiments." Professor Susan Reverby at Wellesley did the original research which unearthed the crimes in “’Normal Exposure’ and Inoculation Syphilis: A PHS [Public Health Service] ‘Tuskegee’ Doctor in Guatemala, 1946-48,” Journal of Policy History, Special Issue on Human Subjects, January 2010. See here. Cutler was a eugenicist who sought genocidal “population control.”*** Eugenics, the ideal of a master Nordic or Aryan race to which others were inferior and must be subordinated, influential in American politics in immigration, sterilization and anti-miscegenation laws in the early twentieth century, became the ideology of Nazism. See here, here and Gilbert, Democratic Individuality, ch. 10. One might imagine the medical ethics and politics of such American “physicians,” then and later, different from the practices Nazi Germany toward jews, poles and roma. They were not.****

When I debated Dr. L, Jolyon West – “Dr. Jolly” - the director of the Violence Center (the official name was the Center for the Study and Reduction of Violence, the sadism down to psychosurgery on prisoners hard to describe*****), Students for a Democratic Society put out a leaflet: Auschwitz 1944, UCLA 1974 detailing many experiments at each institution. In the periphery of the empire and for the lower classes, democracy does not exist; fascism is the norm. In a parliamentary democracy, the parliamentary aspect is mostly for the elite, dictatorship for the many (until Obama, it looked like democracy and the rule of law might vanish even in the elite…). But it is a mistake to see these policies as unusual in a “great democracy.” It took more than half a century for these policies to be brought to light; redress is another bridge to cross.

This article is published in Al-Jazeera (see a related piece in the New York Times today by Donald McNeil, "Panel Hears Grim Details of Venereal Disease Tests" here). Though the study was commissioned by President Obama and is based on a just and commendable apology by the American government, the commission’s report is not yet much in the American papers. In addition, this is the tip of the iceberg. In 1950, the Guatemalans elected President Jacobo Arbenz who nationalized the United Fruit Company. When I was a student at Harvard, I took a plane flight from New York to Boston and the person sitting next to me was a Canadian sea-captain who had transported fruit from Guatemala. As an emblem of his experience, he described a poor woman near the dock trying to pick up some bananas from a broken container that the workers had dropped. She was beaten by a company guard. Physical abuse of the workers, he said, was also routine. When I discovered that President Eisenhower had used the CIA to overthrow Arbenz in 1953 and establish a dictatorship (one that, according to the Denver Post, murdered some 200,000 Mayans especially under Rios-Montt, one that made reflective American State Department people sometimes wish again for Arbenz), I understood American foreign policy.

That particular overthow has always made the so-called inter-democratic peace hypothesis in international relations, which among other matters, omits the deliberate destruction by the American government (“democracy”) of some 12-15 nonwhite democracies during and after the Cold War, fatuous. See here and here. In ordinary English, the idea democracies do not go to war with each other seems to affirm peaceful intentions, not bellicosity, toward other democracies. But operational “English” restricts war to when both sides lose a thousand soldiers and excludes other hostilities. CIA intervention (or drone, mercenary, and seal warfare today – see here in Pakistan) does not count as war.****** This is pretty inept and quite often bad faith prestidigitation about belligerence.*******

Around here, there is the illusion, for most of us, that America is not also a police state (though it holds 25% of the world’s prisoners), that it is not militarist (though it spends as much on war - over a trillion dollars a year - as all the other nations of the world combined), that it is not racist…

That Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton have apologized for the experimentation in Guatemala is an honorable attempt to acknowledge a sordid history and avoid it in future. Alluding to the Convention against Genocide, the Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom has rightly named these acts crimes against humanity. It would be good if the American public could hear the story and take in the links. Informed citizens, as I say sometimes to my classes who often do not know of such things or miss seeing a pattern, might then think about whether American militarism – of which such overthrows and racist “doctoring” are an ingredient – is really a road on which this country needs to continue.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011 by Al-Jazeera-English
Panel Condemns US Syphilis Study in Guatemala

US presidential commission discloses gruesome specifics of 1940s experiments on prison inmates and mental patients.

The US research project in which government researchers deliberately infected Guatemalan prison inmates and mental patients with syphilis in the 1940s has been described as an "institutional failure" by a US presidential commission.

Nearly 5,500 people were subjected to diagnostic testing and more than 1,300 were exposed to venereal diseases by human contact or inoculations in research meant to test the drug penicillin, the commission said on Monday.

Within that group, "we believe that there were 83 deaths," said Stephen Hauser, a member of the commission which has poured over 125,000 documents linked to the episode since being set up by President Barack Obama last November.

However, Hauser said not enough evidence existed to confirm that the procedures the people endured during the study was what had killed them.

Among the 1,300 people exposed to STDs during research between 1946 and 1948, "under 700 received some form of treatment as best as could be documented," he said.

Guatemala's vice-president Rafael Espada told Al Jazeera that Guatemalan doctors were also present during the tests.

Obama personally apologised to Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom in October before ordering a thorough review of what happened.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the experiments as "clearly unethical".

'Historic injustice'

The experiments are already considered one of the darkest episodes of medical research in US history, but panel members say the new information indicates that the researchers were unusually unethical, even when placed into the historical context of a different era.

Commission president Amy Gutmann called it an "historic injustice," and said the inquiry aimed to "honour the victims and make sure it never happens again".

"It was not an accident that this happened in Guatemala," Gutmann said. "Some of the people involved said we could not do this in our own country."

The US researchers "systematically failed to act in accordance with minimal respect for human rights and morality in the conduct of research," Gutmann said, citing "substantial evidence" of an attempted cover-up.

A Guatemalan study, which was never published, came to light in 2010 after Wellesley College professor Susan Reverby stumbled upon archived documents outlining the experiment led by controversial US doctor John Cutler.

They revealed that some of the experiments were more shocking than was previously known.

For example, seven women with epilepsy, who were housed at Guatemala's Asilo de Alienados (Home for the Insane), were injected with syphilis below the back of the skull, a risky procedure.

The researchers thought the new infection might somehow help cure epilepsy. The women each got bacterial meningitis, probably as a result of the unsterile injections, but were treated.

'Crimes against humanity'

Perhaps the most disturbing details involved a female syphilis patient with an undisclosed terminal illness. The researchers, curious to see the impact of an additional infection, infected her with gonorrhoea in her eyes and elsewhere. Six months later she died.

Cutler and his fellow researchers enrolled 1,500 people in Guatemala, including mental patients, for the study, which aimed to find out if penicillin could be used to prevent sexually transmitted diseases.

Initially, the researchers infected female Guatemalan commercial sex workers with gonorrhoea or syphilis, and then encouraged them to have unprotected sex with soldiers or prison inmates.

Neither were the subjects told what the purpose of the research was nor were they warned of its potentially fatal consequences.

Cutler, who died in 2003, was also involved in a highly controversial study known as the Tuskegee Experiment in which hundreds of African-American men with late-stage syphilis were observed but given no treatment between 1932 and 1972.

The Guatemalan president has called the 1946-1948 experiments conducted by the US National Institutes of Health "crimes against humanity" and ordered his own investigation.

© 2011 Al-Jazeera-English

*At the 50th anniversary gathering of Social Studies graduates at Harvard last September, Amy spoke, musingly, of how when the President asks, one has to do it. This is, of course, a view from a great height (reflecting little residue of the program as critical social theory), and it might not have occurred to her, with W or Clinton, to offer such a maxim. What Obama asked her to do, however, was genuinely important and the report itself revelatory.

**See Jessica Mitford, Kind and Usual Punishment and Humberto Bracho, Jim Prickett and Alan Gilbert, Stop the Violence Center.

***"CBS News reports that Cutler seemed to recognize the delicate ethical quandaries their experiments posed, particularly in the wake of the Nuremberg 'Doctors’ Trials,' and was concerned about secrecy. 'As you can imagine,' Cutler reported to his PHS overseer, 'we are holding our breaths, and we are explaining to the patients and others concerned with but a few key exceptions, that the treatment is a new one utilizing serum followed by penicillin. This double talk keeps me hopping at times.'

Cutler also wrote that he feared 'a few words to the wrong person here, or even at home, might wreck it or parts of it … '

PHS physician R.C. Arnold, who supervised Cutler, was more troubled, confiding to Cutler, 'I am a bit, in fact more than a bit, leery of the experiment with the insane people. They can not give consent, do not know what is going on, and if some goody organization got wind of the work, they would raise a lot of smoke. I think the soldiers would be best or the prisoners for they can give consent.'” See the link above.

****To their credit, the American Medical Association, along with the American Psychological Association condemned the Bush-Cheney administration's torture policies at Guantanamo, Bagram, Abu Ghraib and other secret sites. The leaders of the American Psychological Association and some American anthropologists disgracefully participated. See, however, the anti-torture statement by anthropologists here. And a rank and file sponsored referendum in the Psychological Association finally reversed the leadership's criminal support for these activities.

It is worth taking in both how individuals and later associations opposed these policies and yet how present and so far unpunished these crimes by professionals are…

*****When a new “apolitical” director, Dr. Joshua Golden took over, he had done experiments in chemical castration of prisoners – accused “rapists,” actually sometimes leftists – in Franco’s Spain. See here, here and here.

******Libya does not count either, so Obama’s unconstitutional rationalization for how firing all those missiles is not a war is echoed in political “science.” But Qaddafi was no democrat…

*******During the Cold War, Michael Doyle's initial articulation of this view, first published in Philosophy and Public Affairs, was courageous and solitary. I am speaking of some more recent articulations, particularly the use of the idea politically by Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush.

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