For forty years, the United States government allowed economically disadvantaged African American men to be exploited in the name of research, although the research could not generate any benefit to society. Specifically, from 1932 until 1972, government funded researchers enrolled economically disadvantaged African American men in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study to document the already known course of syphilis, which led to the men suffering sores, fever, hair loss, weight loss, headaches, paralysis, blindness, dementia, and death. In exchange for free meals, medical exams, and burial insurance, the researchers promised the men that they would provide treatment for their “bad blood,” which could include “anemic blood to muscle aches, general malaise, disorders such as parasitic infections, gonorrhea, syphilis, and other venereal diseases.” Not only did the researchers lie about the purpose of the study, but also they intentionally deprived these men of “demonstrably effective treatment in order not to interrupt the project, long after such treatment became generally available,” causing the unnecessary disability and death of the men, their wives, and their children. The study was not a therapeutic study because it was not testing a possible treatment of syphilis and blocked any access to treatment. Additionally, the study was not a non-therapeutic study to attain generalizable knowledge because the medical community had already documented the disease process of syphilis. Thus, there was nothing gained from the study other than exploiting economically disadvantaged minorities.
The egregiousness of this study led to the creation and recognition of three Bioethical Principles: Respect for Persons (informed consent); Beneficence (the best interest of the individual participating in the re-search based on a benefit-risk analysis);10 and Justice (who participates in medical research and what benefit has to be given to groups who participate in medical research), which govern all medical research studies conducted by or funded by the federal government, except for specified circumstances, like emergency settings. Although these Bioethical Principles have the force of law, medical research studies conducted by or funded by the federal government continue to exploit economically disadvantaged minorities by using them for participation in medical research studies for which there is no benefit.
Yearby, Ruqaiijah A., "Exploitation in Medical Research: The Enduring Legacy of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study" (2017). All Faculty Scholarship. 82.