The Tuskegee Syphilis Study was an unethical study that lasted for 40 years and had the goal of observing the natural history of untreated syphilis in black populations. The study violated major ethical principles because participants did not give informed consent, and researchers did not provide them with available treatments, even after penicillin began to be widely used as a successful treatment. Because the program did not provide any real treatment, like it had promised, there were also women who contracted syphilis from the participants of the study, and children who were born with congenital syphilis (Sophie Nick, 2014). The participants were a vulnerable minority, and researchers used their trust, claiming that the study was crucial for science and future treatment of syphilis.
Watching the short movie about this study made me feel overwhelmed and angry, because I cannot imagine how someone can be so cruel and careless with other people’s lives. I do not think that sacrificing the lives of all those innocent people can ever be justified, not even in the name of science. The fact that it had lasted for 40 years and was not questioned by the government earlier almost seems impossible (Sophie Nick, 2014). That study was both amoral and unethical, because researchers violated the rights of the subjects, and the majority of them died of a curable disease. What was morally wrong with that research is the fact that the participants of the study were deprived of their right to know about the risks and dangerous consequences of the procedures. Another ethical issue has to do with the fact that the US Public Health Service ignored the law that required medical personnel to report and treat venereal diseases. In addition, research personnel did not keep accurate records, and because of that, the real number of participants who died as a result of the experiments was not known.
I would like to believe that such unethical studies are not possible in present-day realities. Safeguards to prevent that include the Belmont report, created in response to this infamous study, which ensures that all the rights of research subjects are respected. In recent decades, ethics have played a major role in medical practice, and all major studies, as well as health care facilities, pay considerable attention to the issues of the ethical side of any research. In the past, however, there were many shocking unethical experiments, such as Japan’s infamous Unit 731 or experiments of Josef Mengele.
It is hard to say what I would do if I was asked to participate in an ethically challenging dilemma. I am sure I would act according to my values and principles, and do my best to make sure that people around me have the right understanding of good and evil as well. Some people might claim that these fundamental categories are too subjective, but I do not think so. Human life and freedom are some of the most important values every person, and especially those in power, should respect. Therefore, I would adhere to the ethical principles based on those values and act according to them if I faced some moral dilemma. However, if I was one of the victims of the cruel experiments discussed above, I would most likely either have no choice or be as lost and trusting as they were.
Sophie Nick. (2014). The Tuskegee Syphilis Study – National History Day 2014. YouTube.