To the survivors, to the wives and family members, the children and the grandchildren, I say what you know: No power on Earth can give you back the lives lost, the pain suffered, the years of internal torment and anguish. What was done cannot be undone. But we can end the silence. We can stop turning our heads away. We can look at you in the eye and finally say, on behalf of the American people: what the United States government did was shameful. And I am sorry.
—President Clinton delivering a formal apology to those affected by the Tuskegee experiment, 1997. (6)
When the New England Anti-Vivisection Society was founded in 1895, its mission was “to expose and oppose secret or painful experiments upon living animals, lunatics, paupers or criminals.”
Not long ago in the United States, society’s most vulnerable—including children and the poor—were subjected to egregious experiments without their consent. It was considered ethically acceptable. NEAVS was one of the organizations that fought to end this victimization.
Below is a small sample of the many unethical experiments conducted on vulnerable humans in the United States over the last 75 years:
Stuttering research on orphans—1939
Researchers from the University of Iowa conducted stuttering experiments on orphans at the state-run Iowa Soldiers’ Orphans Home in 1939. The researchers trained orphans to become more conscious of normal lapses in speech to see if this would cause the orphans to stutter. In fact, it did. (1)
In 1994, John D. Rockefeller IV, Chairman of the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, issued a report that detailed how for the past fifty years the Department of Defense (DOD) has “intentionally exposed military personnel to potentially dangerous substances, often in secret.” The report notes out how army regulations exempt informed consent in some types of military research. (2)
The Fernald School experiments—1940s–50s
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology carried out non-therapeutic experiments on young male residents with the consent of the Fernald School. Most of the residents were abandoned by their families. Without the boys’ knowledge, the researchers gave the boys radioactive oatmeal in a nutrition study for Quaker Oats. (3)
Holmesburg Prison study—1960
In the 1960s, poorly informed prisoners were subjected to human experiments at this Philadelphia prison. Testing involved substances such as deodorants, psychotropic drugs, radioactive isotopes, and chemical warfare agents. (4)
The Tuskegee experiment—1932–1972
The Tuskegee Syphilis Study conducted by the United States Public Health Service from 1932 to 1972 denied treatment to nearly 400 poor African American men from Alabama who had syphilis to see how the disease progressed. During the study period many of the men died and their wives and children were infected. It was not until 1997 that the United States government apologized for this egregious study. (5)
The right of being
Under today’s laws, humans in the United States may not be experimented on without their written consent and may elect to withdraw voluntarily from research at any time.
These are two rights that chimpanzees—as sentient and complex in their own way as humans are in their way—do not have.
The well-documented history of experiments on unwilling or unwitting humans shows that, unchecked, scientific interests can push the moral boundaries with little regard for the right of the individual being—human or nonhuman.
What seems so horrific to us under today’s moral consideration was quite acceptable, even if brushed under the carpet, not so long ago. Project R&R is dedicated to arriving at the same moral repulsion toward research on our closest genetic relative—the chimpanzee—as we now have toward harmful research on humans.
For more information on human experimentation see: Human Experiments: A Chronology of Human Research by Vera Hassner Sharav