The Department of Health and Human Services on Tuesday announced $1.8 million in aid to Guatemalan health authorities to fight sexual disease and improve research with human subjects.
An announcement such as this might have gone unnoticed, but federal lawyers filed legal papers the day before asking for the dismissal of a lawsuit seeking to hold the U.S. government and its public-health officials accountable for the outcomes of Tuskegee-style medical experiments conducted on more than 1,000 Guatemalans in the late 1940s.
In those post-World War II experiments, U.S. public-health officials intentionally infected prisoners, psychiatric patients and soldiers with syphilis, gonorrhea and/or chancroid without their informed consent for study and treatment purposes. Many Guatemalans, however, were left untreated.
Lawyers for the Guatemalan victims said the $1.8 million in aid for Guatemala is a positive action.
But the Department of Justice papers filed in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia on Jan. 9 are an “extremely disappointing” response, given the harms done by U.S. officials to these victims and their families, said Terrence Collingsworth, partner at Conrad & Scherer.
“It’s almost as if there’s a blockade that protects the government with immunity, and when you stack the statutes together … it’s like it’s an impermeable wall,” said Conrad & Scherer attorney Piper Hendricks.
But she said she is “seeing some chinks in that armor,” adding that she and her colleagues would be filing briefs by March 9 before U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton.
In the Justice Department court filings, Tony West, assistant attorney general, and his co-counsel wrote, “As a result of these unethical studies, a terrible wrong has occurred.” But while the United States “is committed to taking appropriate steps to address that wrong,” they wrote, “this lawsuit is not the proper vehicle - and this Court is not the proper forum - through which the consequences of this shameful conduct may be resolved.”
The Justice Department asked that current federal office-holders be dismissed from the case, and cited the Federal Tort Claims Act as a primary basis for immunity for the United States. Lawyers for Mirta Roses Periago, director of the Pan-American Health Organization, also asked the court to “dismiss this case with prejudice” because she and the organization “are indisputably immune from this action.”
The Guatemala case was the subject of a September 2011 report, “Ethically Impossible: STD Research in Guatemala From 1946 to 1948,” conducted by the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. The case has been described as Tuskegee-style because of its similarities to the infamous Alabama experiments in which black men with syphilis saw doctors but were never told about their syphilis or given treatment for it.