The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment

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Name what went right in the Tuskegee study. Which aspects of it could be replicated today, following the Nuremberg Code, the Declaration of Helsinki, and the Belmont Report?

It is difficult to name what may have gone right in the Tuskegee study. However, it is worth remembering that there were the physicians, considered liberal in the era, that were supportive of the efforts to study syphilis and other venereal diseases, and had intentions to understand how to prevent and eradicate the disease in the early part of the twentieth century. Through the course of history we learn from our mistakes and from those who speak up about such things as ethical treatment. The studies that have occurred in the aftermath of abhorrent treatments as happened in Nuremberg, Helsinki, and Macon County, have shaped codes of ethics across decades. However, we should heed warning that not all human beings are above taking advantage of those with lesser capabilities to be autonomous, and that there are those who may utilize paternalism to the degree of unfairness, maleficence, and injustice, even when law provides protection against such action. Furthermore, it is important to recognize that while the Nuremberg Code was created to create ethical guidelines for the utilization of humans in bio-research, and to protect autonomy and respect of persons, it came into existence 25 years before the Tuskegee project was finally forced to end. Cultivating and promoting ethical conduct is an ongoing process that will change with social, cultural, economic, and medical progressions through time. The lessons learned from poor and unethical treatment of humans and mistakes in judgment, will continue to be made through ignorance and blind obedience, social and leadership pressures or other influences. The study and practice of ethics needs to stay current with education, advocacy, and perseverance.


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Thomas, S. (2000, January/February). The legacy of Tuskegee. AIDS and African-Americans. In The Body; The Complete HIV/AIDS Resource. Retrieved from

Tuskegee University. (n.d.). About the USPHS syphilis study. Retrieved from

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