September 25, 2022

But that was in another country

Hi there,

As the 50s recede into the rear-view mirror, for many people they become suffused with a nostalgic glow. But they had at least one defect: doctors were quite careless about this all this annoying informed consent stuff, especially when their patients were young, indigent or military.

This week we have highlighted experiments on children in a psychiatric hospital in Vienna. Doctors deliberately infected them with malaria which affected them for years afterwards. This is relatively minor compared with the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments in the US, which ran from 1932 to 1972, in which researchers withheld treatment from black sharecroppers.

At BioEdge we have often reported incidents like these which crop up in the press. There were medical lobotomies after World War II for shell-shocked soldiers. There were prostate biopsies for Bowery bums in New York which sometimes caused impotence and rectal tears. There were the Edgeworth Arsenal experiments in which soldiers were given psychotropic drugs to see what would happen. There were the Guatemala syphilis trials of the 1940s in which hundreds of Guatemalans were exposed to venereal diseases. There was the Puerto Rican contraceptive pill trial on illiterate women.

If you have the stomach for it, there is a Wikipedia article listing many more stomach-churning experiments in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. (Yes, I know, Wikipedia is not reliable, but its lists are useful.)

We recognise that these experiments were exploitative, but at the time, doctors and scientists often just shrugged their shoulders and got on with the job. In hindsight it is easy to say that they were blind to the ethical dimensions of their work.

But what of us? Are there aspects of today’s medicine which seem acceptable and ethical which will be condemned as debased and immoral by our grandchildren? Or have we entered a golden age of moral perfection? Any ideas?

Happy Mother’s Day!

Michael Cook
Have we entered a moral golden age?