Analyzing the past: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment and Belmont Report
The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment is one of the most famous examples of biomedical research ethics violations involving human subjects in United States history. The experiment, led by the United States Public Health Service, began in 1932 and lasted for more than 40 years before it abruptly ended as a result of public pressures regarding major ethical violations. The goal of the study was to observe the natural progression of late-stage, untreated syphilis in African American men. In the 1940’s penicillin was discovered and became the standard antibiotic used in curing syphilis. The study’s researchers had the opportunity to provide treatment to syphilitic patients yet the antibiotic was withheld and even actively prohibited in order to keep the experiment viable.
Following the exposure of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, Congress introduced legislation to protect research participants. This included the creation of the National Research Act (1974), the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects, and the drafting of the Belmont Report. The Belmont Report is considered to be the most profound guidance resulting from the National Commission. It highlights three main ethical principles when conducting research involving human subjects: respect for persons, beneficence, and justice.
The objective of this project was to apply the principles of the Belmont Report to the Tuskegee syphilis study, illustrate how we as a society responded to the injustices involving human subjects, and to look at the effects the report had on federal research administration practices. By understanding the historical and ethical aspects of the Tuskegee study and the succeeding events, this examination has the potential to give researchers a baseline to understand contemporary issues involving race, ethnicity and scientific research. This insight includes helping researchers better understand the challenges they face when recruiting minority participants into biomedical research.