A class action lawsuit on behalf of about 700 Guatemalans who were subjected to syphilis experiments by American doctors in the 1940s will be filed against the U.S. government in three days unless reparations of some kind are made to their families, plaintiffs attorneys said Tuesday.
The Obama administration apologized last October for U.S. government doctors infecting Guatemalans with the syphilis virus from 1946 to 1948 to study how the sexually transmitted disease is passed and whether penicillin treatment was effective. The experiments came to light in 2009 through research by historian Susan Reverby, a professor of women and gender studies at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.
Because of the apology, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Conrad & Scherer and Washington, D.C.-based Parker Wakeman Alonso notified Attorney General Eric Holder that he had until Friday to offer a way to settle claims before the 33-page lawsuit is filed in federal court.
The draft complaint names as class representatives heirs of a Guatemalan experiment victim as well as soldiers who were given the virus without their consent.
"What we are doing is a bit unconventional," said Piper Hendricks, a Conrad & Scherer associate in Washington. "Rather than hit them with a lawsuit right away, we want to see if there is an agreement that can be reached prior to filing."
Hendricks said this is not an attempt at a money grab, and there are variety of solutions that can arise from the threat of litigation, including a program to provide medical treatment or information on STDs in Guatemala.
"When no amount of money can make anybody whole, that's when you've got to get creative," she said.
Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller declined to comment on the potential lawsuit but said, "Once it is filed, we will review the complaint and make a determination as to how the United States will respond in court."
DOCTOR WITH A PAST
The doctor who led the Guatemalan experiments was John C. Cutler, who also helped coordinate the infamous Tuskegee, Alabama, study where 600 black men with syphilis were left untreated for decades starting in 1932 to follow the course of the treatable disease.
In Guatemala, Cutler contacted orphanages, prisons and mental hospitals and cajoled them with medical supplies to allow the experiments, according to the plaintiffs lawyers.
Doctors were interested in how the disease was transmitted. One method was to have an infected prostitute sleep with prisoners, lawyers said.
"This was not just a shot in the arm," Hendricks said. "The ugliest thing about this is that they targeted people who were the most defenseless."
Cutler moved his experiments to Guatemala because there would not be the same level of oversight as in the U.S., the threatened lawsuit stated. Unlike the Tuskegee study, which involved people already infected with syphilis, Guatemalans were intentionally exposed to the disease.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius apologized last October to Guatemala, the survivors and their descendants, calling the experiments "clearly unethical."
Additionally disturbing was that the experiments in Guatemala were performed at the same time as the Nuremberg trials, which documented atrocities done by the Nazis in the name of medical science during World War II, Hendricks said.
"It's very disturbing. It's not just a wrong recognized in hindsight," she said. "They knew at the time that you cannot engage in nonconsensual human experimentation like this."