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Obama Apologizes to Guatemala for Syphilis Research

President Barack Obama personally apologized today for a U.S. government experiment conducted in the 1940s in which prisoners in Guatemala were deliberately infected with a sexually transmitted disease.

Obama delivered the apology in a telephone call to Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom.

“This is tragic and the United States by all means apologizes to all those who were impacted by this,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said earlier today.

The U.S. Public Health Service conducted the testing from 1946 to 1948 to study inoculations against sexually transmitted disease, according to a joint statement from Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. They called the experiments “clearly unethical.”

In his call with Colom, Obama “reaffirmed the United States’ unwavering commitment to ensure that all human medical studies conducted today meet exacting U.S. and international legal and ethical standards,” a White House statement said.

Current regulations would prohibit such experiments. The U.S. will conduct a “thorough investigation” into the 1946 study, Clinton and Sebelius said. Clinton asked Guatemala to join in the probe during a separate call to Colom, according to the State Department.

Experiment Unearthed

The experiment was unearthed by Susan Reverby, a professor of women’s and gender studies at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. In a synopsis of her paper on the study, Reverby said the researchers arranged for subjects to have sex with prostitutes infected with syphilis to test inoculations. The study didn’t provide useful information and was abandoned, she wrote.

The researcher who led the study later took part in what is known as the Tuskegee experiment. In that case, the Public Health Service conducted a study of syphilis from 1932 to 1972 on 600 black men in Alabama. The 399 test subjects who had syphilis weren’t told they had the disease or given treatment.

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