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Some medical atrocities have been kept secret throughout history, but the Presidental Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues — chaired by Penn President Amy Gutmann — is doing its part to uncover these tragedies.

The Commission published a report yesterday titled “Ethically Impossible: STD Research in Guatemala from 1946 to 1948.” The 200-page report outlines the conclusions of the Commission’s investigation of medical research supported by the United States and performed in Guatemala, in which 1,306 prisoners, mental patients, soldiers and prostitutes were intentionally infected with syphilis, gonorrhea and chancroid without their consent.

The report labeled the experiments in Guatemala, led by John C. Culter, “clearly and grievously wrong.” The Commission wrote: “the experiments in Guatemala starkly reveal that, despite awareness on the part of government officials and independent medical experts of then existing basic ethical standards … those standards were violated.”

The investigation was triggered by the discovery of original records documenting the activity in Guatemala by Wellesley College professor Susan Reverby in June 2003. The documents were reviewed by the Center for Disease Control, transferred to federal government and presented to the Commission.

The investigation, which began in January, tasked the Commission with reviewing and evaluating more than 125,000 pages of original records, including the documents found by Reverby and additional materials received by U.S. Departments of Defense and Veteran Affairs. The Commission also traveled to Guatemala in pursuit of the facts.

As chairwoman of the Commission, Gutmann met with Vice President of Guatemala Rafael Espada at the start of the investigation, expressing her concern and sadness: “I said on behalf of the whole Commission, as well as on my own behalf, that we would investigate what happened between 1946 and 1948 thoroughly and that we would publish an unvarnished report on what we found, and that’s what we did,” she said to Espada.

The U.S. government has a number of responsibilities when tragedies such as the Guatemalan experiments occur. “The first obligation is to get the story out, make the facts known and make clear what happened,” said Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at Penn. “What happened was inexcusable and represents the darkest side of human exploitation.”

The Commission and Caplan agree that the government is also responsible for educating citizens and learning from mistakes. “It is also important to say what we’ve learned from these experiments and what lessons need to be taught from the history of what happened,” Caplan said.

In that pursuit, the Commission is now moving forward to produce a second report on contemporary standards of medical research performed on human subjects, due to President Barack Obama by December. “The follow-up report will be key,” Caplan said.

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