Bioethics News

Victims of Guatemala syphilis experiments to sue Johns Hopkins

Victims of the infamous Guatemala syphilis experiments have filed a lawsuit against Johns Hopkins University, which they say was complicit in authorising the research.

During the experiments, which took place in the 1940s and 50s and were overseen by US researcher Dr John C. Cutler, many hundreds of unsuspecting Guatemalans were infected with syphilis, gonorrhoea and other sexually-transmitted diseases.

The US$1 billion lawsuit seeks to hold the university responsible for the experiments, because its doctors held important roles on panels that reviewed federal spending on sexually-transmitted-disease research, including on the experiments in Guatemala. It also names the Rockefeller Foundation and pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb as defendants.

The plaintiffs go as far as to claim that Johns Hopkins was actively involved in the experiments:

“[they] did not limit their involvement to design, planning, funding and authorization of the Experiments; instead, they exercised control over, supervised, supported, encouraged, participated in and directed the course of the Experiments.”

Johns Hopkins says that the allegations are groundless. Kim Hoppe, a spokesperson for the university, told The Baltimore Sun that the suit “is an attempt by plaintiffs’ counsel to exploit a historic tragedy for monetary gain.”

Legal experts said the lawsuit’s arguments could be a stretch. Today, professors who frequently serve on a volunteer basis with the National Institutes of Health, for example, are generally considered to be acting independently and not in their capacity as university faculty, said Holly Fernandez Lynch, executive director of the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology and Bioethics at Harvard University Law School.  

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.