Background of Tuskegee Syphilis Study
The Tuskegee Syphilis study was a biomedical research that turned out disastrous. The study commenced in 1932 and ended in 1972. Notably, in the late 1920s to early 1930s, approximately 35% of the impoverished African-American living in the Southern US were infected with syphilis. During this time, the disease was largely untreatable and, as such, adversely affected the infected individuals’ ability to work and achieve upward economic mobility. It is also worth noting that the available treatment had serious to fatal side effects as it involved infusions of various toxic metals; the treatment had a considerably low success rate (Morling, 2018).
In 1932, the US Public Health Service (PHS) and Tuskegee Institute collaborated in a study that sought to investigate the health effects of untreated syphilis over the long term. The study featured 600 African-American men, most of them illiterate. About two-thirds of the men were already infected with syphilis. The researchers recruited the men in their community churches and schools by promising them that the project would allow them access to medical care. Contrarily, the researcher planned to leave the participants untreated and follow them until their eventual death to gather valuable data regarding how syphilis progressed when untreated (Morling, 2018).
Consequences of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study
Over the four decades that the study lasted, it was characterized by adverse consequences. To start with, the researchers lied to the participants that they were receiving treatment while in actuality they never received any beneficial treatment. Secondly, the researchers subjected the participants to painful and dangerous procedures. At a certain point, the researchers had to conduct a painful spinal tap procedure that was potentially dangerous. The researchers lied to the men that they would be receiving a “special free treatment” to entice them to come. Thirdly, as the study continued, 250 of the participants registered to join the US Army. As part of the selection process, the individuals were diagnosed with syphilis and instructed to reenlist after receiving treatment. The researchers violated the instructions and prevented the men from accessing treatment. Consequently, they could not serve in the armed forces or receive the subsequent G.I. Bill benefits (Morling, 2018).
Fourthly, several of the participants infected their partners with the disease, as a result, in some cases, causing congenital syphilis in their children. Fifthly, the study also led to the death of many of the participants by denying them access to treatment. After the men died, the researchers offered generous burial fees to their families, but only so they could get the chance to conduct the autopsy studies. Being low-income families, they agreed due to the large payment. Lastly, the study jeopardized public confidence in government health services and research works. Owing to the Tuskegee Syphilis study, to date, some African-Americans are still suspicious of government-sponsored health services and research (Morling, 2018).
The Tuskegee Syphilis Study presents three ethical issues. First, the researchers did not treat the participants respectively. The researchers withheld information and lied to the participants about the nature of their participation in the study. The men were not informed that they had syphilis and the researchers used lies to entice them to participate in the research. For instance, to get the men to come for the dangerous spinal tap procedure, the researchers lied that it was a “special free treatment (Morling, 2018). By withholding information and using lies, the researchers denied the participants the chance to make fully informed decisions.
Second, the study caused harm to the participants. The participants’ welfare was consistently jeopardized throughout the study. The researchers denied the men access to treatment even after the cure for syphilis became available. The researchers also subjected the participants to painful and potentially dangerous tests. Lastly, the study purposely targeted an underprivileged social group with the aim of taking advantage of their socioeconomic status. Whereas people from all ethnicities and social backgrounds are prone to syphilis, the researchers targeted low-income African-Americans; all the men in the study were poor African-Americans (Morling, 2018).
Read also Recent and Past Bioethical Issues in Medicine
Contribution of the Study to Modern-Day Research Ethics
Besides arousing controversy, the Tuskegee Syphilis study informed several modern-day research ethics practices and procedures. The adverse consequences of the study led to the introduction of the principle of informed consent in studies utilizing human subjects. Informed consent refers to informing potential research participants about all aspects of the study, which can reasonably influence their decision, to help them make an informed decision regarding whether to participate or not (Resnik, 2016). Today, as per the standards of the American Psychological Association, researchers using human subjects in their inquiries must inform all potential participants about the nature of the study (“Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct”, n.d.). This allows potential research participants to make well-informed decisions.
Another contribution of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study to modern-day research ethics is the ethical principles and guidelines of the Belmont Report. In 1974, the National Commission for Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research was established. A crucial charge of the Commission was to formulate the basic ethical principles that should undergird biomedical and behavioral studies involving human subjects. Two years after its establishment, the Commission released the Belmont Report. The report identifies three basic ethical principles: (1) the principle of respect of persons, (2) the principle ofbeneficence, and (3) the principle of justice (“The Belmont Report”, n.d.). Belmont Report’s principles lays the foundation of the American Psychological Association’s (APA’s) ethical standards. Specifically, the Belmont Report’s principles align with APA’s ethical standards regarding justice, respect for people’s rights and dignity, and beneficence and non-maleficence. (“Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct”, n.d.). Thus, the Tuskegee Syphilis study significantly contributed to the establishment of modern-day research ethics and procedures.