Considering the Ethics of Tuskegee Experiment and Others

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There have been notable, and some gruesome, scientific experimentations that have been conducted on humans that are dated as far back as the 1800s. It is not uncommon to wonder how human experimentation may be deemed ethical. Before the Nuremberg Trials, it was likely that many of those experiments were not ethical. The ethics of a scientific experimentation lies in the amount of respect the researcher has in their subjects, the consent that the subject may or may not confer, and the risks, the consequences, and the benefits that may derive from the experiment, to enumerate a few. Many experiments in history have raised questions such as why experiments had to be conducted on humans and how some of these experiments forever changed the course of human research, and ultimately paved the way to the Nuremberg Trials, among other attempts to better govern scientific experiments on humans.

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In 1845, a little over ten years following the first notable human experimentation, Dr. J Marion Sims, or the “father of gynecology,” began performing vesico-vaginal fistula experiments on African women who were enslaved. Dr. Sims conducted these medical procedures on these women without anesthesia. The reasoning for Dr. Sims’s decision to conduct his experiments on these African women was because their masters brought them to Dr. Sims to see if he could heal them as “the women were useless as human chattel since they could neither work in fields nor houses due to their condition” (Ojanuga, 1993). At first, Dr. Sims did not want to treat the women as he believed that vesico-vaginal fistula was incurable (Ojanuga, 1993). However, with his prior discovery of handmade speculum from a pewter spoon, he revoked his previous hesitations and decided to conduct the experiments. These women were not asked for their consent; they did not volunteer. Their masters gave Dr. Sims permission. Because Dr. Sims figured that he would be making a ground-breaking discovery, he invited other doctors to come and view the operation on the first woman, named Lucy. Lucy was not given anesthesia, so not only did she experience excruciating pain during the experiment, but she had a room full of doctors observing her as well. She nearly died as a result of Dr. Sims’s experimental use of a sponge to clean up the urine in her bladder which caused her to fall ill will a fever because of blood-poisoning (Ojanuga, 1993). The next woman, named Anarcha, had a successful outcome with her experiment. However, it took over thirteen operations for her to be cured. Some sources say she had to undergo at least thirty operations (Boodman, 2015). Once the experiments were over and the women were sent home, white women sought out Dr. Sims to perform the operation on them, but they could not endure the pain of only one operation, let alone thirteen to thirty operations (Ojanuga, 1993). Although Dr. Sims was defended by some arguing that it was a decision that made sense with the times back then, history has evidence of the opposite. It was shown that there were plenty of experiments that did not involve the use of slaves in said experiments. Because of this, it is possible to deduce that his use of slaves in his experiments was not common even for that time (Ojanuga, 1993). Towards the end of the 1800s, the experiments on humans had not gotten much better.

Toward the end of the 1800s, in 1896, Dr. Arthur Wentworth began experimenting on children at Boston’s Children Hospital, performing spinal taps to discern if the spinal tap procedure was harmful or not. Dr. Wentworth preformed what is called a lumbar puncture, or spinal tap, on 29 toddlers and infants without divulging the experiment to or receiving permission from the children’s mothers (Boodman, 2015). He was trying to prove that these procedures were safe after he performed one of the first spinal taps on a two-year-old only a year prior to the experiment on the 29 children (Boodman, 2015). The two-year-old did not expect this procedure and had an adverse reaction to the operation. Dr. Wentworth chose his subjects based on the age of his first patient in order to prove that it was a safe procedure. Over 30 years down the line, another notable experiment called the Tuskegee Experiment took place.

The Tuskegee Experiment occurred in 1932 and involved six hundred African American men, initially. Three hundred ninety-nine of these men had syphilis, and the other two hundred one did not. The researchers continued the study without the informed consent of the patients. The only thing that the researchers told the subjects was that they were being treated for “bad blood” (“Tuskegee Study,” 2020). During the study, none of the subjects of the study were treated of their illness; they did not receive proper care. The researchers compensated the men with free meals, medical exams, and burial insurance for taking part in the experiment (“Tuskegee Study,” 2020). The experiment lasted thirty-nine and a half years longer than it was predicted. The researchers could have given the patients penicillin to treat their illness, but neglected to do so. In addition, there was never any indication that the researchers gave the men the opportunity to opt out of the rest of the experiment. The experiment was noted to be “ethically unjustified,” the risk was higher than the reward, and the study was stopped immediately after this declaration in 1972 (“Tuskegee Study,” 2020). Seven years after the start of the Tuskegee Experiment, an experiment called the “Monster Experiment,” is conducted. In 1939, Dr. Wendell Johnson, a highly regarded speech pathologist, performed an experiment to test the theory he had on the roots of stuttering. 

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