Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Lesser People

In last Thursday’s class, LeBreque brought to our attention many unethical research with groups of people considered to be "less important” by the researchers conducting the experiments. Although we have heard countless times about the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, Nuremberg Trials, Willowbrook Hepatitis Studies, Jenner’s vaccinations, among many others, we still must be reminded about these cases, which in turn remind us about the importance of seeing each life as equal when conducting research and the repercussions to minority groups if bioethics principles were not implemented. Even though we hear most about the cases stated above, it is clear these are not the only cases of unethical research and it is only normal that my mind trails off to things done to the people in my country. Listening to these cases made me remember some of the many unethical studies done in Puerto Rico by researchers who considered us to be an expendable population or in some cases, a population worthy of eradication.

One of the most shocking cases is that of Dr. Cornelius Rhoads, who in 1931 deliberately infected Puerto Rican citizens with cancer cells, killing 13 of the patients. Dr. Rhoads once said in a written document: “The Porto Ricans are the dirtiest, laziest, most degenerate and thievish race of men ever to inhabit this sphere… I have done my best to further the process of extermination by killing off eight and transplanting cancer into several more… All physicians take delight in the abuse and torture of the unfortunate subjects.”  He then went on to be in charge of chemical warfare projects and form part of the United States Atomic Energy Commission.

In the early 1950s, Puerto Rican women were used for experimentation in the making of the first birth control pill invented by Dr. Gregory Goodwin Pincus. Since laws in the U.S. did not permit full-scale experimentation, in 1955 Dr. Pincus and his colleague, Dr. John Rock, decided Puerto Rico was a perfect place to test out their pill due to the lack of anti-birth control laws. The trials quickly moved throughout the poor sectors in the island. The experiment was based on poor and working class women; these women were not told the pill was experimental and were not told the negative effects the pill could have on them. Three deaths occurred among patients who were taking the birth control pill. However, these deaths were not reported to be linked to the trials, despite strong circumstantial evidence that the pill was causing these unexpected deaths. It is believed it was also used as a form of population control to contain the poor sector.

Even though I have only gone into detail about two unethical experiments done in Puerto Rico, there have been many more, as would be the use of imprisoned Puerto Ricans as subjects to radiation experiments, sterilization policies, and the testing of the agent orange before its use in the Vietnam War. Even though some of the studies done to Puerto Ricans and other communities yielded important results, the use of subjects without their consent or their full understanding of the studies is unethical and no one has the right to grant more value to one life over another.


  1. This is a good point. I had never heard of these studies before reading your blog post. Thank you for educating me on the topic. I think this brings up the point that there are probably horrible experiments going on at this very moment that are entirely unknown to the general public. Who knows what will be unveiled decades from now. I agree that many of these unethical experiments seem to take advantage of vulnerable populations. A good example of this are many of the prison experiments that took place in the 50s. The overall point is that it is important to have high ethical standards and laws that are far reaching to stop these types of experiments from ever happening again.

  2. To piggy back off of Lavelle's comment, I had also never heard of these studies before reading your blog post, and I completely agree that no one has the right to grant more value to one life over another. I also agree that these types of experiments probably continue to occur under the radar in a lot of areas, which is really sad to imagine. LeBreque did a great job I think of addressing the ethical issues of these studies while also asking the question of whether or not the data obtained, even though obtained unethically, should be allowed to be used. I personally am still struggling with my opinion on this. Of course I think the best answer is no, regardless of how sound the experimental design was, the data should not be used for any analysis, but I also don't like the idea of this type of horrific treatment happening with nothing to show for it. Does anyone have opinions on this?

  3. Another point of criticism of studies done on these specific populations, particularly pharmacological ones, is that not only are they highly unethical, they are also scientifically unsound. When assessing the effects of a new drug that is going to be used by a heterogenous population, it is important to have a heterogeneous sample population. Different mutations in drug-metabolizing enzymes are more prevalent in different ethnic populations. If hypothetically the pill did not have severe side effects in Puerto Rican women, it could have been due to a prevalent mutation in the population that conferred resistance to these side effects. Then the drug would have been marketed to the ethnically heterogeneous population of American women, and many women without this hypothetical mutation could have suffered due to bad science.