Sunday, May 21, 2017

Miscarriage of justice

  In rural Alabama, the men were told they were being treated for rheumatism, bad stomachs, or “bad blood.” They were promised free meals and free health care.

  They didn’t get the health care they needed most.

  Hundreds of men — mostly poor, all of them black — were recruited in 1932 for the infamous Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male. They were never told they were to be the subjects of a secret U.S. Public Health Service experiment. They were never informed that they had been diagnosed with syphilis. And they never received treatment.

  Instead, they were “simply being watched until they died and their bodies examined for the ravages of the disease,” as DeNeen L. Brown wrote for The Washington Post last week. The study continued for 40 years and ended only when Peter Buxtun, an investigator for the health service, blew the whistle in 1972.

  “Their faces were so red; they told me, ‘We’re learning a lot of important information,’ and then waited for me to apologize,” said Buxtun, recalling his superiors’ reactions to his whistleblowing. “But I had copies of the CDC reports, and I knew they were treating people like cattle.”

  Last week, a Southern Poverty Law Center staffer went to Tuskegee to attend a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of President Clinton’s apology to the then-eight remaining survivors of the study. “The United States government did something that was wrong — deeply, profoundly, morally wrong,” Clinton said. “What was done cannot be undone. But we can end the silence. We can look you in the eye and say what the United States government did was shameful.”

  It wasn’t the first shameful act of medical injustice the government had perpetrated. Beginning in the 1920s, countless women were forced to undergo sterilization under threat of losing welfare benefits. Some young women, like the Relf sisters of Montgomery, Alabama – just 40 miles from Tuskegee – were simply sterilized without their knowledge or consent.

  Minnie Lee Relf was 14 and her sister Mary Alice was 12 when doctors working with a federal welfare agency told their mother that they were going to be given routine shots. Instead, the doctors performed tubal ligations on both girls.

  The SPLC sued the federal government in 1972, forcing it to halt the sterilization program and prompting a federal judge to prohibit the use of federal funds for this purpose.

  It took a lawsuit to halt the Tuskegee syphilis study, too, even after Buxtun leaked information about it to the press. Fred Gray, the civil rights lawyer who defended Rosa Parks, desegregated Alabama public schools and forced the state to let civil rights activists march from Selma to Montgomery, filed a class action lawsuit in 1973 on behalf of the men who were the study’s unwitting participants.

  “The federal government thought enough to get pictures [of the participants] as subjects,” said Gray, speaking at last week’s ceremony in Tuskegee to mark the anniversary of the presidential apology. “It didn’t think enough to get their names as men.”

  Many of the subjects of the syphilis experiment, in fact, remain unknown. The Tuskegee History Center is launching a new initiative to try to identify every man.

  “We have to continue to tell their story,” said Gray, “so that such injustices never happen again.”

  You can see some pictures from this week’s ceremony here.

  This article was published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based civil rights organization.

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