President Clinton yesterday apologized to survivors of thousands of government-sponsored radiation experiments and accepted an advisory commission's recommendation that some subjects of the Cold War radiation studies be granted financial compensation.
"When the government does wrong, we have a moral responsibility to admit it," Clinton told a White House audience that included individuals who participated in the radiation research. "It offers an apology to the survivors and their families and to all the American people who must be able to rely upon the United States to tell the truth and do the right thing."
Clinton's statement brought a dramatic end to one of the most bitter sagas in American history. For a 30-year period beginning in the mid-1940s, the Atomic Energy Commission and other federal agencies sponsored 4,000 controversial radiation experiments, involving tens of thousands of subjects, many of whom had no knowledge that they were test cases.
The experiments varied widely, from a project in which researchers exposed subjects' entire bodies to heavy doses of radiation, to cases in which pregnant women were given radioactive iron to determine what levels would show up in their babies, to a series of tests in which radioactive substances were released into the atmosphere without nearby residential populations being informed.
Yesterday Clinton praised the report of the Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, a panel he appointed in January 1994 to review federal involvement in radiation research and determine what -- if any -- steps should be taken to compensate victims and safeguard subjects of current government-sponsored research.
Ruth Faden, director of bioethics at Johns Hopkins University and chair of the 14-member panel, formally presented the committee's 906-page report to Clinton yesterday.
The panel's verdict, Faden said, was that wrongs were clearly committed. "What most troubled the committee was the lack of respect for the American people that seemed to permeate the conduct of research," she said. "The period we examined was defined by arrogance. People had trust in their doctors, but the doctors who did the research often took advantage of that trust."
The panel's report concluded with more than two dozen recommendations, ranging from a proposal for new laws to safeguard the public against research abuses in the future to new regulations guaranteeing that future research will be conducted with full public knowledge.
The panel also recommended that subjects in three studies -- about 30 individuals altogether -- should receive financial compensation for being subjected to dangerous experiments without their knowledge, sometimes with severe medical consequences. And it established guidelines under which subjects from other experiments might receive compensation or an official apology.
The committee concluded that most of the experiments involved low doses that did not cause long-term medical damage to participants and said that it found no surviving subjects for whom it would recommend medical follow-up examinations.
The panel nevertheless found that abuses of the past were still possible in contemporary research. In some cases, patients with serious illnesses sometimes have unrealistic expectations about the chance that they will benefit from participating in research, the report said. In others, consent forms appear to be overly optimistic in describing potential benefits.
Responding to the recommendations, Clinton directed the interagency task force on radiation, composed of representatives from agencies responsible for the radiation research, to make provisions for compensating some of the victims and to prepare a point-by-point response to the panel's proposals. Clinton also established the National Bioethics Advisory Commission to help set new policies regarding research in human biology and a review of ongoing government research projects.
Organizations representing radiation experiment subjects complained that the panel's definitions of who should receive apologies and financial compensation were too narrow.
"Any unbiased observer would conclude that most, if not all the experiments violated prevailing ethical standards and that the subjects of the experiments deserve an apology," said David Egilman, a spokesman for the Task Force on Radiation and Human Rights.
Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who first raised questions about the controversial research in the mid-1980s, promised that Congress will consider proposals for laws protecting participants in radiation studies and other research. He said the tests' survivors will receive a full hearing before any laws governing guidelines for compensation are passed.
Copies of the report can be obtained by writing to the U.S. Government Printing Office, P.O. Box 371954, Pittsburgh, Pa. 15250-7954, or by calling (202) 512-1800. CAPTION: President Clinton hosts White House ceremony with, from left, Ruth Faden, chair of Presidential Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, Energy Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary and Attorney General Janet Reno. The panel urged financial compensation for some radiation experiment survivors.