By Wesley J. Smith, J.D., Special Consultant to the CBC

The US has given a long overdue apology: Apparently we funded scientists who intentionally infected people from Guatemala with sexually transmitted disease so they could study the disease and its potential treatments. From the story:

From 1946 to 1948, American public health doctors deliberately infected nearly 700 Guatemalans — prison inmates, mental patients and soldiers — with venereal diseases in what was meant as an effort to test the effectiveness of penicillin.American tax dollars, through the National Institutes of Health, even paid for infected prostitutes to sleep with prisoners, since Guatemalan prisons allowed such visits. When the prostitutes did not succeed in infecting the men, some prisoners had the bacteria poured onto scrapes made on their penises, faces or arms, and in some cases it was injected by spinal puncture.

If the subjects contracted the disease, they were given antibiotics. “However, whether everyone was then cured is not clear,” said Susan M. Reverby, the professor at Wellesley College who brought the experiments to light in a research paper that prompted American health officials to investigate. The revelations were made public on Friday, when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius apologized to the government of Guatemala and the survivors and descendants of those infected. They called the experiments “clearly unethical.”

What’s amazing is that these experiments were conducted as the world’s outrage over the Nazi medical atrocities were being voiced at Nuremberg. How could there be such a breathtaking disconnect between what was being universally condemned as monstrous and horribly unethical experiments the scientists were then conducting? Good for the Obama Administration for making this atrocity public and apologizing.

This story raises several issues and teaches important lessons. Obviously, the experiments violated human exceptionalism since the scientists treated other human beings as less than equal by intentionally giving them very serious diseases so they could be studied.

It also illustrates that focusing exclusively on furthering naked science is dangerous. Here’s what I mean: I have no doubt that from a purely scientific perspective, the experimenters believed they wold obtain important and valuable information about STDs and their treatment. But gaining scientific information alone is not all that matters. Ethics are crucial if science is to be kept from doing monstrous things in the great cause of gathering and applying knowledge. Indeed, these experiments were reminiscent of the notorious Tuskegee atrocities, in which poor African-Americans were syphilis were allowed to go untreated as the disease progressed.

We hear often today in current ethical debates over the proper parameters of scientific endeavor that the desires of scientists and the advancement of science are almost all that matters. Let scientists decide the ethics of science, we are told. But history shows — and this story verifies — that such an attitude leads to disaster. Science, like any powerful sector, needs independent checks and balances. This awful story proves it.