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The Tuskegee Anniversary: Proof That Trusting Gov't with Your Health Has Been Destroying Lives for Decades

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On July 24, 1972, the Washington, D.C.-based Washington Star newspaper exposed the details of a 40-year-old crime against hundreds of black men.

The perpetrator of this crime, as it often has been, was the United States government.

In 1932, the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) began a study of untreated syphilis in black men. To facilitate the study, health officials worked with the famed Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

The Tuskegee Institute holds a special place in black history. Booker T. Washington, one of America’s foremost advocates for black vocational education in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, served as principal of the school from its founding in 1881 until his death in 1915.

During WWII, Tuskegee-trained black fighter pilots known as “Tuskegee Airmen” flew thousands of sorties over Europe.

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Thus, the Washington Star’s revelations of U.S. government officials’ unethical treatment of the black men involved in the Tuskegee syphilis study must have struck black Americans as particularly painful and galling.

The 1932 Tuskegee study began with 600 participants, 399 of whom had contracted syphilis.

According to the CDC, the participants did not give informed consent. In fact, “Researchers told the men they were being treated for ‘bad blood,’ a local term used to describe several ailments, including syphilis, anemia, and fatigue.”

Did you know about the Tuskegee experiement?

The study began, therefore, with a government lie.

Worse yet, in the 1940s, when doctors began using penicillin to treat syphilis, the Tuskegee human test subjects received no such treatment. Instead, the study continued for decades.

For years, some conservatives have demonstrated unfortunate tone-deafness when it comes to black Americans’ distrust of the government.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, for instance, Jonah Goldberg, then-editor at National Review, used the Tuskegee story to criticize Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s former pastor in Chicago.

In an op-ed entitled, “Tall Tales about Tuskegee,” Goldberg dismissed Wright’s claim that the U.S. government created the HIV virus in order to kill off black people.

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Goldberg argued that this claim had roots in Tuskegee-related exaggerations.

Bad things happened in the Tuskegee experiment, Goldberg admitted, but “no one disputes that Tuskegee had nothing whatsoever to do with genocide or even a desire to spread the disease among the black population.”

Ironically, both Rev. Wright’s comments and Goldberg’s criticisms fall short of the mark.

The question is not whether black Americans had reason to distrust the federal government. Black Americans have centuries’ worth of evidence to show that many government officials have never been their friends.

The question is whether Americans of any color have reason to trust their government, including its health officials.

After all, even in the limited sphere of syphilis-related transgressions, the U.S. government’s guilt goes beyond Tuskegee.

In 2011, Professor Susan M. Reverby of Wellesley College, editor of “Tuskegee Truths: Rethinking the Tuskegee Syphilis Study” (2000), published an article on the U.S. government’s involvement in a similar study in Guatemala.

From 1946 to 1948, the U.S. government deliberately infected Guatemalan prostitutes with syphilis or gonorrhea. Then, U.S.-paid agents made sure the disease spread.

“With the cooperation of officials at the Ministry of Justice and the warden of Guatemala City’s Central Penitentiary, which housed nearly fifteen hundred inmates” Reverby wrote, “prostitutes who tested positive for either syphilis or gonorrhea were allowed to offer their services to prison inmates, paid for by U.S. taxpayers through the funds of the PHS.”

In recent years, many conservatives’ faith in their nation’s institutions and in public-health officials generally has diminished.

The anniversary of the report that exposed the Tuskegee syphilis study reminds us that this loss of faith has not occurred without good reason.

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Michael Schwarz holds a Ph.D. in History and has taught at multiple colleges and universities. He has published one book and numerous essays on Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the Early U.S. Republic. He loves dogs, baseball, and freedom. After meandering spiritually through most of early adulthood, he has rediscovered his faith in midlife and is eager to continue learning about it from the great Christian thinkers.
Michael Schwarz holds a Ph.D. in History and has taught at multiple colleges and universities. He has published one book and numerous essays on Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the Early U.S. Republic. He loves dogs, baseball, and freedom. After meandering spiritually through most of early adulthood, he has rediscovered his faith in midlife and is eager to continue learning about it from the great Christian thinkers.




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