Bioethics Blogs

Ethically Sound Episode 8: Ethically Impossible

Ethically Impossible,” the eighth episode of the Bioethics Commission’s podcast series Ethically Sound, is now available. Ethically Sound is based on the 10 reports that the Bioethics Commission has produced during its tenure. The Bioethics Commission, established in 2009 by Executive Order, has addressed a wide variety of ethical challenges ranging from synthetic biology to neuroscience. This episode is based on the Bioethics Commission’s second report Ethically Impossible: STD Research in Guatemala from 1946-1948.

In what is now recognized as an infamous episode in the history of research ethics, the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) conducted unethical sexually transmitted disease (STD) experiments in Guatemala from 1946 through 1948. The Guatemala STD experiments were carried out with ongoing oversight by PHS and with the approval and engagement of Guatemalan government officials. The research involved intentionally exposing and infecting several vulnerable Guatemalan research subject populations—prisoners, soldiers, and psychiatric patients—to disease, without their consent. When these studies were revealed in 2010, President Barack Obama extended an apology to the President and people of Guatemala. President Obama charged the Bioethics Commission to conduct an ethical analysis of the research that took place, and to review current federal regulations to protect research participants. The Bioethics Commission conducted a thorough fact-finding investigation, reviewed more than 125,000 pages of documentation related to these studies, and traveled to Guatemala to meet with Guatemala’s own investigation committee. The Bioethics Commission’s report presents an unvarnished ethical analysis of the research studies that occurred, and concludes that these studies involved “unconscionable basic violations of ethics.” The Bioethics Commission’s third report Moral Science: Protecting Participants in Human Subjects Research, addresses the second part of the president’s charge.

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.