In the 1940s and 50s, the Canadian government knowingly starved malnourished children as a part of a scientific study. Research conducted by food historian Ian Mosby disclosed that over 1,300 Aboriginal people, most of whom were children, were subject to nutritional experiments without their consent. The disturbing fact is that has not been a rare occurrence throughout history. During the mid-1900s, the U.S. also performed various clinical studies without the consent of the participants. While a great deal of public health policy has now been constructed as a result of these studies, citizens are wondering how many unprincipled experiments have yet to be uncovered. Disturbingly, racial discrimination has been a prominent factor in the majority of these cases.
In 1942, the Canadian government traveled to northern Manitoba reserves and discovered that a large portion of the population was severely malnourished. Instead of addressing the issue, researchers felt that these individuals were the perfect test subjects. Mosby's research uncovered that in the 1940s, there existed substantial theories about the human needs for vitamins and other key nutrients, but no method to test them. In visiting the reserves, the government had found their perfect guinea pigs. He noted that "the experiment seems to have been driven, at least in part, by the nutrition experts' desire to test their theories on a ready-made 'laboratory' populated with already-malnourished human experimental subjects."
The experiment involved giving essential vitamins to some control groups and depriving others who needed it most in order to measure the full affects. Hundreds were not given dental care because for researchers, gum health provides a critical measure of health. In schools, milk rations were cut in half for years across the country. All of this was done without the consent of the test subjects.
Mosby's discovery has lead to an equally troubling conclusion regarding attitudes towards the aboriginal people of Canada. Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, commented that the "discovery [is] indicative of the attitude toward aboriginals ... they thought aboriginals shouldn't be consulted and their consent shouldn't be asked for. They looked at it as a right to do what they wanted then." Sadly, racial discrimination has always been a underlying factor in the history of unethical scientific studies.
One of the most infamous cases was the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment conducted by the U.S government. Beginning in 1932, the U.S. Public Health Service enrolled 600 African-American men from rural Alabama to study the affects of syphilis. Of the 600 participants, 399 had the disease before they were enrolled in the study. The subjects were never told that they had syphilis and their disease remained purposely untreated. They were baited into the study by false offers of free health care by the government. Eventually the study was halted and in 1974, Congress passed the National Research Act, which created a commission to write and study regulations regarding governmental experiment on human subjects.
An additional study was conducted in Guatemala by the U.S. from 1946 to 1948, where multiple soldiers, prostitutes, mental patients, and prisoners were infected with syphilis and other STDs without their consent. These subjects were treated with antibiotics but the tests resulted in over 83 deaths.
Though many legal structures are now in place to ensure that test subjects fully consent to an experiment, it is clear that race has played a defining factor during unethical scientific studies. Certain groups were extrapolated from the population and manipulated because of their vulnerable state. It is appalling that such actions were carried out, especially on children. These studies remind us that although we now have regulations regarding consent, we must remain observant so that governments uphold the ethics of research on impoverished individuals, who may not fully comprehend their involvement in the studies. Arthur Caplan puts it best when he says that these instances are "a stark reminder that racism and indifference to the weak and the vulnerable [permitted] incredible abuses."