Guatemala Venereal Disease Experiment Draws Petition by UCI Law Clinic

A doctor gives a patient a shot as part of the government Tuskegee Experiments in rural Alabama in the 1930s.
A doctor gives a patient a shot as part of the government Tuskegee Experiments in rural Alabama in the 1930s.
Wikipedia/public domain

One of the many movies that never went anywhere beyond the inside of my own head was to be directed by Spike Lee, feature a frail Richard Pryor and be about the Tuskegee Experiments, the government's research from 1932-'72 in rural Alabama, where African-American men with syphilis thought they were getting free healthcare but were instead not being treated so the degenerative effects of the disease could be studied.

Not until Wednesday afternoon did I know our government was involved in similar experiments in Guatemala after World War II. My education came courtesy of the UC Irvine School of Law International Human Rights Clinic, which earlier that day helped file a petition in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for the victims of the U.S. and Guatemalan experiments.

The petition was filed on behalf of the Office of Human Rights for the Archdiocese of Guatemala, which is represented by the UCI law clinic and the City Project of Los Angeles / Proyecto del Pueblo.

Guatemala Venereal Disease Experiment Draws Petition by UCI Law Clinic

“Intentionally infecting Guatemalan people without their knowledge or consent, and leaving them untreated to the present day, is a crime against humanity," explains Robert García, a Guatemalan-born civil rights attorney with The City Project / Proyecto del Pueblo. "It violates international law, and domestic laws against rape and assault. Apologies are not good enough. Truth and reconciliation require treatment, compensation and restorative justice. This can never happen again to anyone anywhere.”

At least 5,000 Guatemalans were purposefully infected with syphilis, gonorrhea and chancroid, and only a small fraction received treatment, according to the petitioners. "The rest were left to suffer, almost without purpose; though the experiments were well-documented, the results were virtually abandoned before the research team pursued their purported aim: the discovery of whether penicillin could be used as a preventive treatment, or prophylaxis," reads the announcement of the petition filing.

Besides Dr. John Cutler having directed the Guatemala experiments after having taken part in the Tuskegee experiments, the petitioners noted other similarities between the two studies, including the lack of individual consent to the experiments, lack of treatment for infected victims, and deception of victims and the public.

"In Guatemala, researchers intentionally infected the victims and generally left them without treatment or compensation for the remainder of their lives," the petitioners write. "In Tuskegee, the nearly 400 victims were already  infected but were left without treatment for nearly 30 years while U.S. government researchers observed the progress of their infections. The United States eventually provided treatment and compensation for victims, families, and heirs in Tuskegee, including funding to locate the victims and pay attorneys’ fees."

Which is, of course, what these activists want for the infected Guatemalans and/or their families. The petition alleges violations of the rights to life, health, freedom from torture, and crimes against humanity under both the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, and the American Convention on Human Rights.

Under the direction of President Obama, the U.S. established a commission to investigate and expose the experiments, publishing a report in 2011 on the findings called “Ethically Impossible: STD Research in Guatemala from 1946 to 1948.” But the District of Columbia Court of Appeals deemed it too late to hold the government perpetrators accountable in U.S. civil courts. Another federal case is pending in Baltimore against the private entities involved, but not against the government entities.

"Given that U.S. courts have denied victims a remedy, it was important for us to seek international avenues to hold the governments accountable," says Citlalli Ochoa, a UCI law student who wrote the petition with the International Human Rights Clinic. "Keeping this issue in the  public eye within a legal context is crucial for ensuring government accountability and preventing similar events from happening again.”


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