Research Ethics of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study – Medical Ethics Example

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"Research Ethics of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study" is an outstanding example of a paper on medical ethics. The increased demands for conducting tests on human beings become more rigorous with the introduction of experimental methodology into medicine. This was as a result of much medical advancement that occurred immediately after the Second World War; however, the larger populations that were more often victimized by uncontrolled or coerced participation in such potentially hazardous experiments included the vulnerable group in the community such as the prisoners and insane refuge inmates (Murphy, 2003). At this point in time, health matters were closely related to the socio-economic backgrounds of individuals and race, and greater inequality existed.

Due to the emergence of sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis that demoralized the socio-economically underprivileged black adult males living in a racially segregated society; a test had to be conducted on them. Macon County was the best place according to them because it had the most unprivileged people; moreover, it had the highest syphilis rate of about 35% of its total population. Therefore, the researchers wanted to establish the prevalence of syphilis among rural blacks and to discover the prospects of mass treatment (Kirby, Greaves & Reid, 2005).

In the study, the principle of respect to persons that states that the individual research subjects should the treated as autonomous agents, and those persons with diminished autonomy like the vulnerable in the society such as inmates are entitled to the protection of their human and basic rights. In addition, the principle of beneficence to the subjects was never looked into; the research had intentional harm on the individual black adults who suffered.

It can be observed from the video link https: //www. youtube. com/watch? v=ula7dzU2umw that the subjects did maximize their benefits on the activity while at the same time continued to maximize the harm inflicted on them for their own benefits and to the society at large. It is again advisable that the participants of given research should not be inequitably chosen from groups with potential unlikelihood to benefit from the work (Jones & Reverby, 2000). A close awareness needs to be paid to a fair allocation within the human society of benefits and burdens of research that involves human beings are the key subjects for justice to prevail to all.

All these were never put into consideration as it was the few individuals who took the initiative to carry out the research on their fellow human beings in the bid to benefit the whole society. The elements of the Nuremberg Code of 1947 are related to the Tuskegee Syphilis Study because it paid close attention to the necessity of for voluntary approval of the human subjects and the weighing of the predictable latent humanitarian benefits of the intended experiment against the risks to the participants (Loue, 2000).

It appears very unkind that the men in question were recruited under the notion that they were patients of medical intercession and were being treated from their so-called “ bad blood” , they were also influenced by offers of free medical examinations and special free treatments. This case was considered a violation of the human rights of this vulnerable group of subjects because there was no informed consent that was sought before the experiment was carried on the innocent individuals (Magnus, 2009).

There was no room to make a choice what shall or shall not happen to them during the whole process, information that should only be provided when the adequate principles for informed consent are satisfied. It is also very clear that the process was not based on the items that would not give sufficient information to the subjects and they were denied access to information regarding the research, in any case, it was there. Besides, there were no research procedures, purposes why it was conducted were not clear to the victims, the subjects were not aware of the risks and probable benefits, alternative procedures as well as a statement offering the subject the chance to ask questions and to withdraw at any time from the research as it is supposed to be.

The respect for persons was not put into consideration; they were supposed to be treated as autonomous agents, while those who were vulnerable like the inmates had the right to be protected which was never done as can be seen in the video link https: //www. youtube. com/watch? v=9Rg75zEVB1g. They were never protected against physical, mental, and emotional harm, hence their integrity was jeopardized.

In line with all these inhumane acts to the subjects, the case was considered a violation of human rights more so the voiceless in the society as can be noted in the video link https: //www. youtube. com/watch? v=MR5X5x05xhw. The black nurse by the name of Eunice Rivers served as the link connecting the black men and the government officials for a long time during the study. She worked as a liaison between them for a period of forty years, this was probably because she played a crucial role in recruiting the subjects to the research team, and she was also entitled to deal with their daily problems as well as to secure their autopsies upon death (Bernat, 2008).

Her good judgment of healing based on the caregiving role and her companionship with the men, rather than treating syphilis. She rationalized her role in the research with the conviction that those men were better off in the study since they could get access to free medical examinations and pain killers. She was justified to do that because in her naï ve mind she thought that she was helping the needy black men to be accorded the services they needed accordingly. The Code of Ethical Principles for Nurses was developed as a guide to direct to them undertake their responsibilities inconsistency with quality in nursing care and the ethical obligations of their profession (Jean, 2015).

Such ethical responsibilities have been articulated in seven primary values and responsibility statements, that are grounded on nurses’ professional relationships with other individuals, the populations, and other health-care professionals. In spite of the code of ethics giving direction to the nurses, it also provides solutions for day-to-day ethical dilemmas in practice. The study has brought by it a number of changes that are applicable even to date; it upon the treating health care provider to disclose appropriate information to a competent patient in order to enable them to make voluntary choices to accept or refuse the treatment.

According to the literature available on the link http: //exhibits. hsl. virginia. edu/badblood/report/, these are legal ethical rights that a patient has before treatment takes place on him/her; it is the patients who have the right to decide what happens to his/her body.

On the other hand, it is the role of the health officer to use their ethical duty of the physicians to involve the patient in her health care. The patient’ s decision is valid if she is considered capable to make sound decisions at hand and her consent must be deliberate. This enables the patients to participate freely in the decision-making process without being influenced by anyone, after successfully comprehending what is actually needed before, during, and eventually after the process is finished.

This procedure will give the patient basic information about the whole process as well as ensuring that they assent to the intervention willingly. From the video link https: //www. youtube. com/watch? v=9Rg75zEVB1g, the type of the decision executed by the patient is clear based on the fact that they are nowadays provided with the relevant information as opposed to the long-gone times when they were being enticed with gifts to take advantage of them. Before starting any treatment, patients are provided with knowledge on the relevant risks, benefits, and uncertainties related to each alternative which is done after the careful assessment of the patient understanding.

All these have come as a result of the study that was taken and the enactment of the Nuremberg code of 1947 which is applicable to date (Rubin & Babbie, 2011).


Bernat, J. L. (2008). Ethical issues in neurology. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

Jean Heller (2015). “Syphilis Victims in U.S. Study Went Untreated for 40 Years,” New York Times, July 26, 1972.

Retrieved on 15th February 2015 from

Jones, J. H., & Reverby, S. (2000). Tuskegee's Truths: Rethinking the Tuskegee syphilis study. Chapel Hill, NC [u.a.: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

Kirby, S. L., Greaves, L., & Reid, C. (2005). Experience research social change. Aurora, Ont: Garamond.

Loue, S. (2000). Textbook of research ethics: Theory and practice. New York [u.a.: Kluwer Academic [u.a..

Magnus, M. (2009). Essential readings in infectious disease epidemiology. Sudbury, Mass.: Jones and Bartlett.

Retrieved on 15th February 2015 from:

Murphy, T. F. (2003). Case studies in biomedical research ethics. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Rubin, A., & Babbie, E. R. (2011). Research methods for social work. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole Cengage.

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