Segregation and the Civil Rights Movement

Start Free Trial

What are three ethical violations in the Tuskegee Experiment according to the IRB and NASW Code of Ethics?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There were numerous ethical violations that the researchers involved in the Tuskegee Experiment enacted upon the 400 black men who endured the racist, abusive study.

First, the study is a clear violation of informed consent. The 400 black men who tested positive for syphilis were not informed of the name...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

or nature of the disease and were repeatedly lied to and deceived regarding the study, tests, and medical procedures. Tests and procedures were enacted without informed consent, and therefore, they constitute assault. As such, there is no way, even if the patients agreed to the study, that they agreed via informed consent, in which the patient is made aware of all the facts and context of the disease being studied, the process of the study, any potential risks of the study, and the medical tests/procedures being proposed. Instead, researchers intentionally deceived the patients in order to obtain consent under completely false pretenses.

Secondly, the researchers violated ethical code by actively choosing to not treat the patients with penicillin after research demonstrated that penicillin is an effective treatment for the disease. As a result, the doctors/researchers essentially murdered at least 28 patients, with some estimates of over 100 patients, as a direct result of knowingly refusing to treat the illness that resulted in the mens' deaths.

Thirdly, the researchers displayed clear racism and bias, another violation of ethical code, by choosing to commit abuse, medical neglect, and malpractice against only black men. No white men or women were subjected to the brutal realities of this racist experiment. The researchers showed no regard for the lives of the black patients and no regard for the partners of the patients who were also unknowingly exposed to syphilis. This racist experiment lasted decades, with researchers actively allowing patients to enter late stages of the disease and eventually die. These types of experiments are in line with eugenics and Nazism.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In 1932 theĀ  United States Public Health Service (USPHS) designed a study with human subjects with the aim of determining how untreated latent syphilis takes its natural course. For this study, 400 syphilis-infected African Americans from Tuskegee, Alabama were enrolled matching against a control group of 200 uninfected participants. The result of leaving the men untreated was that more than 100 men died directly from advanced stages of syphilis.

It wasn't until 40 years later in 1972 when almost by chance the study came to light and an investigation resulted in that the study was "ethically unjustified", stating that the men who were ill should have been given their medication (penicillin) as soon as it became available. This resulted in the mandatory use of the IRB prior to any study of this kind.

The Institutional Review Board (IRB) is the group that approves any type of proposed researched where humans are used as participants. In 1974, the National Research Act was passed as a result of the Tuskegee experiments, which mandates that ALL federally-funded research done with humans goes through the IRB process by law.

First violation- Deceit

The participants were not told the purpose of the study, nor was the terminology explained. The term "bad blood" was a constant descriptor for many different illnesses and the men were not properly told what they were there fore. They were not told that they had syphilis either, so that means that must have been tested without consent. Moreover, Heintzelman (1995) explains that they even LIED to the participants by telling them that all they were going to get were "spinal shots".

Second violation- Consent

We already know that there was deception in informing the participants, but there was also a violation as to how to obtain the consent of the participants. The researchers knew that these men were not educated, poorly cared for, with no access to health care and in dire economical conditions. They used that to influence them to consent as they presented themselves as figures of safety and authority. There was no procedure in place nor protocol to obtain their permissions, other than a signature (half of them could not even write their names) and a badly explained rationale for the study under the pretenses that they will get better.

Third- Withholding of treatment.

First, do no harm" is the first sentence of Galene's oath which all medical doctors take. In the Tuskegee experiments the men were purposely NOT treated hence allowing a perfectly curable disease to finish them. This was done underestimating and disrespecting the rights of the participants and putting them straight into harmful hands.

Discrimination, social inequality, and other factors come into play when it comes to the analysis of the Tuskegee experiments. The point is that nobody kept accurate records, an entire sector of society (blacks) were continuously allowed to be exposed to sexual activity by not telling them that they were sick in the first place, and they were lied to in order to get their permission to test them...until they all die. Taking into consideration that US Public Health commission gave way to the research leaves a lot to be said about where we were as a country years back.

Approved by eNotes Editorial