Now, over 60 years after the Holocaust, we'd all like to think that society is above such cruelty, but in reality, human experimentation is still a common practice in modern medicine. Big Pharma operates by many of the same rules and motives as IG Farben did, and the test subjects are still the most vulnerable members of society -- the poor, immigrants, minority groups and children.
"Few doctors dispute that testing drugs on people is necessary. No amount of experimentation on laboratory rats will reliably show how a chemical will affect people," David Evans, et al. writes in the Bloomberg article "Drug Industry Human Testing Masks Death, Injury, Compliant FDA". Doctors have recognized the importance of human experimentation since the days of Hippocrates, though the ancient Greeks used it to benefit individual patients rather than science itself or any profit-driven industry. In 1833, William Beaumont, the army surgeon physician who pioneered gastric medicine with his study of a patient who'd sustained a gunshot wound that left his digestive system permanently exposed, established the importance of human experimentation as long as it is with the subject's consent.
However, sometimes it's difficult to find human test subjects, especially for studies involving pain or high risk. In the 1930s, research scientists discovered a solution to their difficulty in finding willing test subjects: Don't ask for their consent. In the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study, the United States Public Health Service diagnosed 200 black men with syphilis and, rather than treating or even informing them of their illness, used them as human guinea pigs to study the symptoms and progression of the disease. Today, as the University of Virginia Health System writes in its online documentary "Bad Blood", "The Tuskegee Syphilis Study has become a powerful symbol of racism in medicine, ethical misconduct in human research, and government abuse of the vulnerable."
During the Holocaust, IG Farben trumped the moral depravity of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Why use and abuse only 200 unwilling human test subjects when you can choose from the multitudes imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps? IG Farben callously used concentration camp inmates of all ages for painful, debilitating and often deadly experiments. Because of this, medical experimentation has become synonymous with injustice, cruelty, prejudice and total disregard for human life. Today, few people would try to justify or support IG Farben's medical experiements, but the sad truth is that modern human medical experimentation is in many ways similar to the horrors carried out by IG Farben.
Like IG Farben, Big Pharma doesn't perform its own experiments. Instead, it doles out the "dirty work" to experimental drug testing centers, some of which confine test subjects for portions of the study. In a Bloomberg article entitled "Miami Test Center Lures Poor Immigrants as Human Guinea Pigs", Argentinian immigrant Roberto Alvarez describes the eight days he spent confined to the Miami-based SFBC testing center: "It can be weird inside. It's like a jail."
In many ways, it is like a jail. In Miami's SFBC, which is the largest center of its kind in North America, test subjects sleep six to a room in double-decker beds. They even have uniforms to wear -- purple drawstring pants and T-shirts, much like the uniforms of concentrate camp victims. Dr. Hoven's criticism of IG Farben's experiments in Nazi concentration camps could easily be directed to Big Pharma's human experiments. In fact, it has. "Some test centers, FDA records show, have used poorly trained and unlicensed clinicians to give participants experimental drugs. The centers ... sometimes have incomplete or illegible records," David Evans, et al. writes.
The Nazi doctors didn't even bother with consent forms. Why waste time when you can just force-feed concentration camp inmates a pill or inject them with an experimental substance? "I remember one of the SS doctors holding my jaw open and forcing pills down my throat," Auschwitz survivor Zoe Polanska Palmer told BBC Radio 4 reporter Mark Handscomb in It's My Story. Granted, giving potential subjects long consent forms written in language they can't fully understand is better than shoving pills down someone's throat, but it still seems unethical and it can still put human life at risk.
Even Kenneth Lasseter, the executive medical director of the SFBC experimental drug testing center, admitted in the Bloomberg article, "It's clear to me. Perhaps it needs to be explained more." Lasseter was speaking of the consent form for an experimental drug that may treat overactive bladders. "The goal of this study is to determine the highest daily dose of TD-6301 that will not cause an undesired increase in heart rate." Yes, that wording may be clear to Lasseter, but it may not be clear to the average test subject. "They're saying it backwards to a population that may not be of the highest education level. The real purpose of the study is, 'We're going to make you sick in order to find out at what level you get sick when given this drug.' Obviously, they don't want to say that," University of Miami bioethicist Ken Goodman told David Evans, et al..
It's no accident that SFBC, the largest experimental drug testing center in North America, is located in Miami. According to the St. Petersburg Times, Miami-Dade County "is the only county in the country where more than half the residents are foreign-born." After immigrants come to Miami from countries like Cuba, Colombia, Haiti, Nicaragua, Jamaica, Argentina and Mexico, they need money, yet experience the employment limitations that little or no fluency in English, little education, unfamiliarity, prejudice and, in some cases, lack of a work permit brings. With few other options available, these immigrants find one of the few legal jobs that doesn't require any amount of English proficiency or education and may even accept forged social security cards: Professional guinea pig.
Many immigrants participate in multiple, simultaneous drug studies. Combining these experimental drugs is a recipe for disaster "because researchers don't know how the different chemicals interact or what side effects the mix may have on a person," according to the Bloomberg article "Miami Test Center Lures Poor Immigrants as Human Guinea Pigs". However, given the fact that some studies only pay $25 per day, what else are the truly marginalized subjects supposed to do? "It's not the job I would choose, but financial circumstances require you to do it sometimes,'' Venezuelan immigrant Oscar Cabanerio told Bloomberg.
This story continues in part two.
Or see the Human Medical Experimentation Timeline
Or see the comparison chart: Human medical experiments, Nazi Germany / modern medicine