The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment



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The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment

Erin Buell

Concordia University

Health Policy and Management

MPH 525


Hollie Pavlica

February 22, 2015

The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment


  1. List at least three examples of unethical decisions made by the researchers conducting the Tuskegee Syphilis Study.

There were many blatant examples of unethical treatment throughout the 40 year span of the Tuskegee experiment. One example is that the decision makers did not give the men truthful information about the blood tests, which was paternalistic in nature and did not allow complete autonomy in the decision making of the men to be in the program. They were told that the blood samples were simply a test for “bad blood,” which was a general term of the day that included common ailments such as fatigue, and anemia, as well as syphilis (Tuskegee University, n.d.). In all codes of ethics, the foundation of truth-telling is emphasized as a component of respect for a person (Burke & Friedman, 2011).

The experiment also breached the ethical component of beneficence. The principle of beneficence is the treatment of people with actions of kindness and charity. In terms of public health practice, beneficence means that the health professional has a positive duty to the public and that they will do all that is possible for the people served (Burke & Friedman, 2011). The experiment was conducted without consideration of the health of the men who tested positive for syphilis, did not work to prevent the spread of the disease, and did not provide treatment even when penicillin was accepted as effective medical intervention in 1945 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], n.d.). In fact, in the 27 years between the introduction of penicillin as a treatment and the end of the experiment, the participants were neither informed of their condition nor provided the medication.



Respect for persons in ethical practice involves the respect for individual autonomy. This ethical backbone supports that one person will treat another in a way that allows them to be self-governing (Burke & Friedman, 2011). In order to be able to be self-governing, an individual must not be coerced, misinformed, or otherwise constrained (Burke & Friedman, 2011). This includes the consideration of many factors that may present interference of a person being able to make an informed decision. In the case of the Tuskegee experiment, many of the men were not able to read. Their illiteracy was not addressed to help the men and their families understand the process. A flagrant example of the experiment not allowing for proper autonomy is epitomized in comments from Dr. Sidney Olansky, the director of the experiment from 1950-1957. Olansky stated that “The fact that they were illiterate was helpful too, because they couldn’t read the newspapers. If they were not, as things moved on they might have been reading newspapers and seen what was going on.” Olansky further admitted that it was not clear that the men understood what they were told, or if they were told the truth in efforts to gain their participation (Thomas, 2000, para. 14).



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