WASHINGTON - The Obama administration argued Monday that Guatemalans unknowingly exposed to sexually transmitted diseases by U.S. researchers in the 1940s cannot sue the United States, no matter how shameful and unethical the studies were.
In its first response to a lawsuit filed on behalf of the experiment's subjects, the U.S. Justice Department late Monday said sovereign immunity protects federal health officials from litigation stemming from the study. The experiment conducted in the 1940s exposed Guatemalan prostitutes, prisoners, mental patients and soldiers to STDs to test the effects of penicillin. The studies were conducted without the test subjects' consent.
President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius have apologized for the research, hidden for decades until a Wellesley College medical historian uncovered the records in 2009.
The Justice Department filing Monday said the studies were "a deeply troubling chapter in our nation's history."
"As a result of these unethical studies, a terrible wrong has occurred. The United States is committed to taking appropriate steps to address that wrong," the filing said, without elaborating on what steps might be planned. But the government attorneys argued, "This lawsuit is not the proper vehicle, and this court is not the proper forum, through which the consequences of this shameful conduct may be resolved."
The government says the Federal Tort Claims Act protects the United States from lawsuits based on injuries suffered in a foreign country, even if acts that caused the harm were planned in the United States.
Attorneys for the Guatemalans said the immunity assertion contradicts the apologies made by Obama and his advisers. They also said failure to accept responsibility for the human rights abuses violates the international prohibition against nonconsensual human medical experimentation that the United States and other nations renounced during the Nuremberg trials following World War II.
"We will continue to vigorously fight for the rights of the Guatemalans wronged in this matter to obtain a remedy for the harms done by U.S. officials," plaintiffs' attorney Terrence Collingsworth said in a statement in response to the filing. "But we remain open to the United States deciding to do the right thing, consistent with long-established human rights law and basic morality."
Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom said he wants the U.S. government to compensate six survivors who have been identified. The lawsuit also seeks compensation for heirs of all the victims who have died, some of whom have experienced their own health problems possibly linked to their parents' exposure, with the amount to be determined by a jury. Attorneys representing the Guatemalans first asked the Obama administration to set up an out-of-court claims process similar to those established in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks against the United States, but they got no response and filed the suit.
Guatemalan officials said last month that they have found 2,082 people were involved in the experiments conducted from 1946-1948 to infect subjects with syphilis, gonorrhea or chancroid. U.S. officials put the figure at 1,308 subjects.
The STD study was designed to test the effects of penicillin, then a relatively new drug. Among the goals of the research, funded by the predecessor of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, was to see how well differing dosages of penicillin worked against different venereal diseases.
An American team persuaded officials at prisons and mental institutions to cooperate by giving them other equipment and supplies such as refrigerators and difficult-to-get medications for malaria and epilepsy. Sometimes, individual subjects were paid with cigarettes and, in the case of prisoners, infected prostitutes were used to expose them to the disease.
The U.S. has been involved in numerous other infamous medical studies on human subjects. The most notorious was the Tuskegee syphilis research on 600 black men in Alabama who were studied without being offered any treatment. The physician involved in that study, Dr. John Cutler, directed the Guatemalan research.