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Tuskegee Syphilis Study: Ethical Issues of the Experiment

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In the present, researchers have to balance gathering data from the subjects whilst protecting their human volunteers. In the past, however, researchers have not always been considerate regarding the state of the human beings they were studying. Thus, a lot of researches done with historical experiments would be considered unethical by today’s standards. The foundation of the ethical standards that we follow today came from the 1970s, written by the National Commission for the protection of human services of biomedical and behavioral research. This is a list of rules to protect the security and privacy of human volunteers. It is called as the Belmont Report.

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In this report there are three key ethical principles as a model for all human research. First principle is the respect for person. Subjects have to give informed consent. Before signing up, everyone who would participate in a human research needs to know the risk and benefits of the experiment. Second principle, beneficence: the research being done, as long as possible should try not to have any negative impact towards the well-being of the participants of their studies. In layman’s terms, do no harm. Third principle, justice: subjects should not be exploited. Also, the burdens of the study and the benefits of the results should be distributed fairly. These rules apply to all human research, including psychology.

Having said that, the code of conduct has not been so clearly defined. Hence, there are a lot of questionable studies being done. Among the studies is the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and ethical issues of the experiment. The experiment began in the 1930s, at a time when there was no known treatment for syphilis – a sexually transmitted disease. The original intention of the experiment is to identify and treat the disease. Due to the Great Depression, the Rosenwald Funds were short.

Despite the need to continue research, the fund stopped operating in this capacity. So, the PHS (U.S public health service) approached the Tuskegee institute in order to form a research group to study the effects of untreated syphilis on a black male population. The PHS enrolled six hundred Macon County men, 399 men with latent syphilis and a control group of 201 others who were free of the disease – they were being treated for bad blood, a term commonly used in the area at the time to refer to a variety of ailments. None of the participants knew what was the experiment for.

The men were lured in with the promise of free health care, something that none of them had. The men were told that they were going to get free medical exams, meals, and burial insurance. For those who had the disease, they were never informed of their diagnosis nor given treatment for it. The only medical treatment they had were just placebos. The reason for the deception is because it was the only way that the men will stay for the experiment. The deception seemed to be a result of lack of respect the doctors had for the subject’s intellectual capabilities, seeing as some were illiterate, which the researchers took advantage of, as it would be harder for the subjects to identify what was going on. There was also hints of racial prejudice. Dr. Clark wrote, “These negroes are very ignorant and easily influenced by things that would be of minor significance in a more intelligent group.” Furthermore, when penicillin came around 1940s as the official cure for syphilis, the men that were still around with the disease were never given a treatment of the drug. Therefore, they were never given a cure just to let the study go on.

There are many ethical concerns about the experiment. No experiment consent form were given to the participants, they were uninformed about the study, and misinformed about the treatment they got. The researchers had no respect towards the well-being of their human subjects due to racial prejudice. The researchers exploited their subjects, knowing some participants are illiterate. No correct medical treatment nor cure were given to the participants, even though a relatively effective cure was available as the official cure for the disease.

Minimizing the ethical violations, The researchers should have given the participants a consent form. The researchers should give the right Information their participants about the effects and benefits of the study. The researchers should have respect for the well-being of the participants, by being humane. During and after the experiment on the participants should have a less negative impact on their well-being, such as being treated fairly. 

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