The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment – Medical Ethics Example

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"The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment" is a smart example of a paper on medical ethics. The United States Public Health Service (USPHS) experimented from 1932 to 1972 which eventually became extremely controversial because of its unethical and inhumane measures. The organization selected 400 black men from Macon County, Alabama for a nontherapeutic experiment on untreated syphilis. The objective of the organization in conducting a sensitive experiment may be noble or self-serving. However, several critics of human rights detested the very core of the experiment because of its unethicality and its deficient justification. The inhumane experiment only proved one thing, that racism in America is far-reaching (Smith 1996 : p.

95). In 1972, Jean Heller exposed the story of the appalling Tuskegee syphilis experiment which immediately spread to the black community. The infamous historical event is considered as one of the most injurious incidents on the collective consciousness of black Americans. The experiment’ s moral transgression led many Blacks to distrust the government hence making them extremely doubtful whenever health officials espouse on issues of public concern. Consequently, when a startling new epidemic swept the land in the 1980s and the 1990s, the Blacks remained impassive to the warnings and advice of public health officials which the Whites had a hard time understanding (Jones 1992: para 1). The lead editorial in the New York Times wrote a controversial conspiracy theory regarding AIDS and the black community on the 6th of May 1992.

The unthinkable declaration that the editorial put into writing states that “ Bizarre as it may seem to most people, many black Americans believe that AIDS and the health measures used against it are part of a conspiracy to wipe out the black race” .

The editor is not satisfied with a mere assertion so he embarked on supporting his statements by citing a survey conducted on Black church members in 1990 which surprisingly shows that 35 percent of the respondents believe that AIDS is not a natural viral infection but a conscious effort to genocide. Furthermore, another study to back up the claim of a conspiracy movement against the Blacks is conducted by the New York Times/ WCBS TV news poll which illustrated that a significant portion of the sample Black population deems that the AIDS virus is a lethal weapon produced in the laboratories to exterminate the entire Black race.

This negative attitude of the Black Americans towards the issue of AIDS is not only scientifically construed but also historically created (Smith 1996: p. 95). However, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment further intensified the problem of racial discrimination. The Tuskegee study became a representation of medical dishonesty, conspiracy, unprofessional conduct, and neglect. Nevertheless, despite the grave allegations on the ethical standards of the Tuskegee experiment, the medical institutions in the United States did insignificant attempts to acknowledge the human tragedy caused by the Tuskegee study.

There were no medical organizations that carried out a convention to discuss the detrimental effects of the Tuskegee experiment to the Black community and there were no academic journals released that examine the knowledge gained from the study. Thomas and Quinn (1991: p. 1498), scholars on public issues, argued that health officials should be responsive to the needs of the Blacks of substantial information that may ease their fear and anxiety of genocide which is induced by the AIDS outbreak.

Moreover, as a part of human ethics, public health officials should accept the truth that the competence of scientific knowledge has its limitations since it doesn’ t have the absolute answers to all the human concerns. From the year 1932 to 1972, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment took place in which African American men were selected among the illiterate population of the community. The objective of the study was to track the natural etiology of terminal syphilis. To obtain accurate results, the experiment’ s clinicians divided the human subjects between the “ experimental” group which has untreated syphilis and a “ control” group without syphilis.

The original proposal was to experiment for one year but it ended after almost 40 years. The human subjects who were drafted to participate in the experiment were not briefed of the research’ s objectives and procedures; they were not informed that they are infected with syphilis, that they are being given medication, and that they are part of an experiment. The human subjects were only told that they had “ bad blood” and could obtain medical treatment which is purely medical examinations.

To alleviate the human subjects from suspicions regarding the experiment, the clinicians provided them free appetizing meals and free burials. Meanwhile, in the 1940s the penicillin was introduced as an effective drug that could treat syphilis but the human subjects were not given penicillin prescription. The Tuskegee experiment not only committed serious ethical problems but also amassed scientific shortcomings; important personnel constantly changed annually, there were no documented protocols, and pieces of evidence were defectively maintained. The severe clinical misconduct committed by the experimenters was eventually exposed by Beecher to the public yet the study continued until Peter Buxton from the U. S.

Public Health Service revealed the dreadful story to the Associated Press (Shamoo and Resnik 2003: p. 186). The mid-twentieth century witnessed much atrocity in human research which is manifested by the unethical nature of the research community. Experiments using human subjects became more common in the period which is characterized by the negligence of the researchers on the codes of ethics regarding experiments on human subjects. The initial stage of the Tuskegee experiment was conducted in the period in which there are no well-built ethical standards on human experimentation.

Even though notable physicians such as Claude Bernard and William Osler advocated the necessity of having ethical codes on human experimentation, disreputable experiments on human subjects continued unabashed. In Henry Beecher’ s article in the New England Journal of Medicine released in 1966, he daringly exposed 22 studies with ethical defiance which includes the notorious Tuskegee syphilis study (ibid: p. 187). It is quite well-known in the field of scientific research that misconduct and immorality in terms of procedures fail to achieve accurate results hence the maxim “ good science is irreconcilable with bad ethics” .

This is a comforting belief to those who struggle with the medical abuses on human subjects since it implies that key individuals who endeavor in unethical human research will utterly fail in contributing significant knowledge to medicine. However, the findings on the Tuskegee syphilis experiment which are largely obtained through dreadful research procedure on human subjects are the knowledge relied upon by subsequent medical specialists in diagnosing and treating syphilis (Caplan 1992: para 6).

Therefore, the painful negligence on the unethical and inhumane nature of the Tuskegee study was bolstered by the biomedical community’ s reliance on the Tuskegee findings as vital information for the diagnosis and treatment of syphilis. In this case, bad ethics is overcome by the Tuskegee experiment’ s findings thus forfeiting the belief that researches that abuse and harm human subjects will never produce useful scientific results. The Tuskegee study on syphilis is on the surface unethical and inhumane. It violated many of the ethical standards in human research. The conscious effort to hide from the human subjects the true nature of their health situation is a blatant human rights’ misdemeanor.

Moreover, the mere selection of the human subjects for the experiment is laden with racial bigotry and negative stereotype, which is that Blacks are more prone to syphilis than the Whites. Even though the Tuskegee findings are useful to modern medicine, it is still urgent and important to commit to memory the heartrending abuses hauled against the Black community in the Tuskegee experiment to devise effective programs that would lessen the burden and misery caused by the incident to the families of the experiment’ s victims and to avoid history repeating itself.


Caplan, A. (1992). When Evil Intrudes. The Hastings Center Report , Vol. 2 Issue 6.

Jones, J. H. (1992). The Tuskegee Legacy: AIDS and the Black Community. The Hastings Center Report , Vol. 22 Issue 6.

Resnik, D. B. & Shamoo, A. (2003). Responsible Conduct of Research. New York: Oxford University Press.

Smith, S. L. (1996). Neither Victim Nor Villain: Nurse Eunice Rivers, The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment and Public Health Work . Journal of Women's History , 95.

Thomas, S. B. (1991). The Tuskegee Syphilis Study, 1932 to 1972: Implications for HIV Education and AIDS Risk Education Programs in the Black Community. American Journal of Public Health , no. 11.

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