Should Prisoners Be Used in Medical Experiments?

History is rife with unethical experiments on inmates. But with proper safeguards prisoner studies may hold the key to the accurate representation of vulnerable groups and lead to health benefits




Dina Fine Maron

Scientific American

July 2, 2014



The year was 1946, and under the guise of public health hundreds of Guatemalan prison inmates were deliberately infected with syphilis. Male prisoners were sometimes infected via direct injection—including right to the penis. Still other prisoners got sick after visits from prostitutes who were often also purposely infected. None of the research subjects were asked for their consent.
Some six decades later Pres. Barack Obama called Álvaro Colom, Guatemala’s president, to personally apologize for the abhorrent U.S. government–led research. But that case is just one of many egregious prisoner experiments that have occurred throughout history. Until the early 1970s most pharmaceutical research was conducted on prisoners—everything from studying chemical warfare agents to testing dandruff treatments.



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