IN THE FALL of 2010, the Obama administration acknowledged a shocking truth: From 1946 through 1948, officials working in Guatemala for the U.S. Public Health Service conducted tests on some 5,100 unwitting individuals and deliberately infected at least 1,300 with sexually transmitted diseases. None of the victims — who included prisoners, soldiers, the mentally ill and commercial sex workers — consented to this barbaric treatment. At least 83 people died, and many suffered permanent damage.
President Obama expressed regrets to the Guatemalan president. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius called the experiments outrageous and, in a joint statement, apologized “to all the individuals who were affected by such abhorrent research practices.” The administration gave a presidential commission the task of compiling information about the origins, nature and scope of the experiments.
But there has been no effort to compensate individuals directly harmed by the atrocities.
A class action lawsuit, filed on behalf of eight individuals who claim to have been victims, spouses or descendants of victims, has been wending its way through the federal courts in the District. On Jan. 9, the Justice Department made a strong and potentially winning argument that the suit should be thrown out on technical grounds. A victory in the legal arena does not absolve the U.S. government from its moral responsibility. Moreover, it should not take a lawsuit to prompt the government to do the right thing.
The Obama administration has announced plans to spend $1 million to study new rules to protect volunteers in human-subject experiments and has allocated $775,000 to fight sexually transmitted diseases in Guatemala. It has not ruled out compensating victims, but it notes the difficulty of identifying eligible individuals because of the passage of time and the facts that the experiments were conducted on foreign soil and that subjects were often not identified by their full names. True enough, but logistical hurdles should not thwart a good-faith attempt.
A lot of ground has already been covered by the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethics Issues. But the commission noted in its September 2011 report that it did not have access to information in the Guatemalan government’s possession that was critical to identifying individual subjects. Guatemala has since identified several survivors.
The Obama administration should work with Congress to establish a panel to pull together all available information and to determine fair compensation for surviving victims or their families. The Guatemalan government should cooperate with the United States to ensure justice for its citizens.