Johns Hopkins University and other institutions face a billion-dollar lawsuit by 774 Guatemalan plaintiffs seeking damages after some were deliberately infected with sexually transmitted diseases through a U.S. program. The Guatemalan plaintiffs allege that Johns Hopkins University played a roll in the deliberate infection of hundreds of citizens in the Central American country with sexually transmitted diseases that included syphilis and gonorrhea for the purpose of medical experimentation.
The billion-dollar lawsuit also names the Rockefeller Foundation and states that the defendants had designed, supported, encouraged, and financed the experiments that took place in the middle of last century. The lawsuit alleges that a Rockefeller-financed researcher was assigned to the Guatemalan STD experiments. Pharmaceutical group Bristol-Myers Squibb was also named in the lawsuit. The lawsuit alleged that defendants knew that the experiments in Guatemala were both non-consensual and a secret.
According to The Guardian, Guatemalans were the subjects of experiments between 1945 and 1956, and those experiments remained secret until a college professor, named Susan Reverby, discovered in 2010 that the now-historical STD experiments took place. The lawsuit alleges that after some of these non-consensual patients were deliberately infected with STDs, no findings were ever published and the subjects were never told to seek follow up medical treatment nor informed of how to prevent transmitting these STDs to others.
60 of the claimants were direct survivors of the STD experimental program, according to their lawyer, Paul Bekman.
“The people who are responsible [for carrying out the research] now are long dead. But the records are there, and we have detailed documentation that supports the allegations in our complaint.”
The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues investigated claims of the experiments at the request of President Obama and found that the Guatemalans were experimented on as part of the U.S. Public Health Service program and that the experiments in Guatemala “serve as a cautionary tale of how the quest for scientific knowledge without regard to relevant ethical standards can blind researchers to the humanity of the people they enlist into research.” It found that 1,308 subjects (prisoners, soldiers, and psychiatric patients) were deliberately exposed to an STD, and later, 5,128 other subjects, “sex workers, soldiers, prisoners, orphans, schoolchildren, leprosarium patients, and U.S. servicemen” were given diagnostic tests including blood draws and lumbar punctures.
The Presidential Commission found that basic ethical standards were not met in the Guatemala experiments, that the researchers who conducted the experiments were aware of these standards at the time of the research, and that the researchers “were morally wrong and the individual researchers and institutional officials were morally blameworthy.” The commission wrote about the ethical violations in the 2011 report.
“While research is sometimes still done with vulnerable populations, using deliberate exposure and infection, and without informed consent, such studies have to be carefully justified, reviewed, and approved often with additional protections added.”
A federal lawsuit against the U.S. regarding the Guatemalan experiments failed in 2012, because a judge ruled that the U.S. government can’t be held liable and because the experiments took place off U.S. soil. The claimants hope that the lawsuit against Johns Hopkins University and the other institutions will be more successful, because they are private entities. A spokesperson for Johns Hopkins University denied responsibility in the Guatemalan STD experiments.
“Johns Hopkins did not initiate, pay for, direct of conduct the study in Guatemala. No nonprofit university or hospital has ever been held liable for a study conducted by the U.S. government.”
The Rockefeller Foundation also denied responsibility.
“In the absence of a connection to the Rockefeller Foundation, the lawsuit attempts to connect the Foundation to the experiments through misleading characterizations of relationships between the Foundation and individuals who were in some way associated with the experiments.”
More details on the STD experiments in Guatemala that took place last century and is at the heart of the lawsuit involving Johns Hopkins University and other institutions is available on the government’s bioethics website.
[Photo via the National Archives and Records Administration and the Presidential Commission]