US Claims Immunity in 1940s STD Experiments on Guatemalan Orphans, Prostitutes

New funding for Guatemala from U.S. government effect of guilt?

The United States has rejected the grounds of a lawsuit filed by the Guatemalan victims of 1940s experiments who are seeking justice from the government. Despite the Obama Administration deeming the STD experiments unethical, the U.S. has claimed immunity against the suit.

The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues investigated the case in 2010 and determined in a Sept. 2011 report  that between 1946 and 1948 scientists conducted "diagnostic tests including blood draws and spinal taps on as many as 5,500 Guatemalan prison inmates, psychiatric patients, soldiers, commercial sex workers, orphans and school children." Of those tested, researchers deliberately exposed about 1,300 to sexually transmitted diseases syphilis, gonorrhea or chancroid, the reports stated. At least 83 subjects died as a result, although "the exact relationship between the experimental procedures and the subject deaths remains unclear.”

The commissions have since admitted that the experiments were unethical.

“In the Commission’s view, the Guatemala experiments involved unconscionable basic violations of ethics, even as judged against the researchers’ own recognition of the requirements of the medical ethics of the day,” commission chair Amy Gutmann, Ph.D., said in a statement at the time. “The individuals who approved, conducted, facilitated and funded these experiments are morally culpable to various degrees for these wrongs.”

However, the U.S. government is not, it claimed Monday. The alleged victims and their heirs have filed the lawsuit against the U.S. government in March. In its first response, the government argued that it was immune to the suit and asked the court for its dismissal, according to CNN. The United States claimed that because the harm was suffered in a foreign country, and because the Guatemalans have not exhausted other administrative solutions, it has sovereign immunity under the Federal Tort Claims Act.

However, the plaintiffs claim the U.S. should be held responsible for the atrocities.

"The medical team and U.S. entities took advantage of the fact that ethical limitations in the United States were enforced, while in Guatemala, they were not," according to the complaint, Courthouse News Service reported. "But, as the parties involved fully recognized, these ethical limitations were not unique to the United States, nor did they apply only on U.S. soil.

Adding, “The ethical limitations were part of international law and, as such, transcend any particular country and apply to humans everywhere. Nuremberg made abundantly clear that all humans have the right to be free from nonconsensual medical experimentation.”

The lawsuit reportedly compared the project to the Tuskegee syphilis experiment in Alabama. During that 40-year study that began in 1932, doctors observed how the disease progressed in about 400 poor African-Americans who already had syphilis. The men were never told they had the disease and were never treated for it. The test subjects received free medical testing, meals and burial insurance, according to CNN.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced it will invest about $1.8 million to aid the treatment and prevention of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases in Guatemala. The money will also "further strengthen ethical training on human research protections," the agency said in a statement.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will “improve public health investigators’ ethics training by updating existing epidemiology case studies, based on actual investigations involving research methods and ethical considerations.” They are also to increase funding in Guatemala by $775,000 over three years to help monitor and control the spread of STDs.