For a variety of reasons, I have intentionally begun to move my research and scholarship away from research ethics, which was one of my areas of focus in my postdoctoral fellowship.
Nevertheless, it would be remiss, to put it mildly, to omit any mention of the revelations, stemming from Susan Reverby's work, that the Public Health Service of the U.S. government intentionally infected Guatemalan prisoners with syphillis for research purposes in the mid-to-late 1940s.
The history of unethical human subjects research "in" the U.S. is, as I have written, vast and deep, and precludes any legitimate claim that such transgressions were isolated occurrences. But it is also worth noting in the present case that the Guatemalan government and health ministry not only knew about the study, but provided financial and logistical assistance to the investigators.
This is simply another in the long line of examples proving Amartya Sen's thesis on the enormous role political structures play in ameliorating or enhancing the misery of their own people. (see, perhaps most notably, Poverty and Famines). This is just as true in the developed world as in the developing world.
UPDATE, 10.7.10: Do take a look at Professor Reverby's own comments on the matter, posted at The Bioethics Forum (of The Hastings Center). An excerpt:
This experience is, in the end, a chance for all of us to consider the role that these kinds of exposures play in our work. Once the initial shock is over, what do we want the Guatemala revelation to do? The debate on the necessity for protections in the developing world continues and perhaps this will be a reminder of why they matter. I have tried to emphasize that Cutler was not just some aberrant monster. He thought the war on syphilis required these kinds of sacrifices. He thought he was doing good science.
I invite your thoughts on what we do with all this now.