Were there any unethical components in the Tuskegee study?

Yes, there were many unethical components in the Tuskegee study. The study was inherently unethical in that study organizers misrepresented it to participants, who believed they would be receiving medical treatment. Many aspects of the study, like the spinal tap and autopsies, were also misrepresented. Finally, the study was based on faulty presuppositions of African American inferiority.

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The infamous Tuskegee syphilis study (or perhaps experiment is a better word) was filled with unethical components from beginning to end. First, the study was misrepresented to the participants (almost four hundred African American men diagnosed with syphilis) from the very beginning. They were told that they would receive free medical care and treatment for “bad blood,” but the study's organizers actually wanted to trace the progression of syphilis through all of the disease's stages. These scientists and doctors already knew that they had no intention of offering treatment to the study's participants, but they still allowed the men to think they were receiving therapy. What's more, in the study's later years, penicillin was deemed an effective drug to combat syphilis, but the study's participants were never given access to it. They were allowed to continue to suffer from their disease.

Further, the participants had to undergo a painful spinal tap, but this, too, was misrepresented as “special treatment” that was required for them to continue their therapy. Participants were also restricted as to where they could receive medical treatment for other conditions. They were only allowed to receive treatment at cooperating hospitals where their syphilis would not be treated. Many of the participants died during the years of the study, and since researchers wanted to perform autopsies on these men, their families were often bullied into permitting the procedure, which they would not otherwise have allowed. They were only told about the desired autopsy at the time of death even though the researchers always intended it.

Finally, the Tuskegee study was largely based on faulty presuppositions about African Americans, including the idea that they were inferior to white people and less moral in nature. The participants were seen as primarily “guinea pigs” rather than as human beings with dignity. Indeed, the study was unethical in almost every way.

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