Tuskegee Redux?

By Rinku Sen Aug 23, 2006

This morning I was in the elevator at work with two 20-something men, one white, one ambiguous. They started talking about a man they had seen at a Wal Mart while they were on the road recently. After speculating on the guy’s appearance ("Was that a toupee he had on? He had serial numbers tatooed on his neck." ), one asked , "Which WalMart was that?" The other replied: "Tuskegee, where that movie was made." I don’t think he meant the movie Miss Evers’ Boys, an HBO movie about Black sharecroppers who were enrolled without consent in a study of the effects of syphilis. Even after penicillin was discovered as a cure, doctors didn’t treat these 400, letting them die or go mad instead. Last Sunday, the New York Times reported that a federal panel of medical experts are arguing that we should loosen the rules that prohibit testing drugs on prisoners. There are lots of benefits, the panel said, both individual (Try the newest form of Ambien!) and social (No more suicide for rich kids on anti-depressants!). Prisoner rights advocates protested that prisoners don’t truly have choice, that informed consent is a joke among a trapped population. They cited not just the Tuskegee study, but also Holmesburg, where prisoners were exposed to radioactive and cancer-causing materials and hallucinogenics in exchange for some hundreds of dollars each. The panel called for independent review of all studies, but the whole idea makes my skin crawl. Even if prisoners do consent, the conditions hardly constitute "free will." If we think it’s wrong to permit harvesting organs from poor people to sell on the black market, why is it all right to have prisoners sell their bodies to the pharmaceutical industry? This story reminds me that there’s a great deal more to fight about on health care than simple access, which is important but not enough. And that many people do see today’s prisoners as slaves. If the drugs have so many potential benefits, why not rely on the open market to entice testers?