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John Whitehead's Commentary

Mengele's Legacy Lives On: Inhumane Experiments on Children in America

John Whitehead
Inevitably, when we hear about humans being experimented on, our minds turn to the Auschwitz concentration camp and the infamous Nazi Angel of Death, Josef Mengele. Seen as immoral and scientifically dubious, Mengele's work included placing human beings in pressure chambers, freezing them to death, testing drugs on them and castrating them. He also injected children with lethal germs, removed their organs and limbs and performed sex change operations on them. His primary interest was twins. The Nuremberg Code, created as a reaction to the horrors of Mengele's work, provided directives for human experimentation to protect the experimental subject from even remote possibilities of injury, disability, or death. Above all else, the Code stressed that it is necessary to obtain voluntary, informed consent from the patient.

Despite the existence of this code and subsequent medical ethics codes, Mengele's legacy lives on. This time, the culprit is none other than the United States government through its involvement in numerous questionable and immoral human research programs. Lest you think that the scientific community and government agencies would not carry out immoral experiments on humans, particularly children, think again. For example, the federal Environmental Protection Agency's forays into human experimentation recently came to light after the Washington Post reported that the EPA had approved a two-year study in which families who use pesticides in Duval County, Fla., would be paid to continue using them and to monitor their children's exposure. Each family would be paid $970 in order that scientists might discover how children's bodies absorb hazardous chemicals. Although scientists may not know the full effects of these poisonous chemicals, they do know that children are at greater risk than adults. Yet rather than advising parents to keep children away from pesticides, the government is paying them to poison their children. Thankfully, after U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer (CA) and Bill Nelson (FL) threatened to block the full-time confirmation of Stephen Johnson, the EPA's acting administrator, if the experiment were not cancelled, Johnson ended the Florida pesticide program on April 8, 2005.

However, the pesticide study is not the only unethical experimentation in U.S. history. It is simply the most recent case. At a prenatal clinic at Vanderbilt University Hospital from 1945-49, nearly 830 poor, pregnant Caucasian women were given a drink containing radioactive iron. They were told the drink would be good for their fetuses. Within an hour, the radioactive material was circulating in the blood of the unborn babies.

The list of criminal experiments does not stop at endangering the unborn. During the 1940s and 1950s, the U.S. government was involved in many radioactivity tests in which humans, especially young children, were used as guinea pigs. Most notable was the MIT and Quaker Oats-sponsored testing at the Fernald School in Waltham, Mass., in which mentally retarded students were fed cereal containing radioactive iron in order to trace iron absorption. However, neither the students nor their parents were informed of the use of radioactive materials or the possible health risks.

From 1948 to 1954, Johns Hopkins conducted an experiment on 582 third graders, testing the effects of Nasal Radium Irradiation. Although it is now known that this procedure places the participant at greater risk for cancer, the government still has not contacted the participants to warn them of this risk. During the 1950s and 1960s, mentally retarded children between the ages of 3 and 11 at Willowbrook State School were intentionally infected with hepatitis. The early test subjects were fed extracts of the feces of an infected patient, and later subjects were injected with the virus in order for researchers to be able to study the hepatitis virus. In the 1960s, the D.C. Children's Center in Laurel, Md., used mentally retarded children as test subjects. They were given a diet pill called NeoBazine, which contains thyroxin, a drug that causes tremors, nervousness, insomnia and tachycardia. The FDA later found that this drug was not safe for use.

As recently as 1989-1991, Kaiser Permanente of Southern California and the Centers for Disease Control treated 1,500 poor black and Latino inner-city children in Los Angeles with experimental measles vaccines. The same vaccination was given to infants in Mexico, Haiti and Africa by the World Health Organization. It was discontinued after a large number of those tested died.

In a series of articles written for the New York Press in July 2004, Liam Scheff reported on experiments at Incarnation Children's Center in New York, where AIDS drugs were being tested on HIV-positive children, the majority of whom are orphans. Although the HIV test is not always accurate, once the children test positive, they are considered terminal patients and subjected to debilitating and experimental drugs. Despite the fact that these drugs can be torturous for the children, those carrying out the experiments seem to feel justified in doing so because the children will most likely die anyhow.

For some reason, people are more apt to allow cruelty in the name of medical research. Yet human experimentation makes a mockery of the Hippocratic Oath, which doctors swear to uphold. There is obviously no true moral viewpoint here. The Golden Rule of treating others with the concern and kindness you would like them to show you seems to have fallen on deaf ears in certain sectors of the medical industry. And one can only wonder, "What kind of mind operates on this level?"

When the world learned the truth about Josef Mengele's horrific experiments, he was immediately branded a monster. However, a few years later, similar experimentation was being sanctioned by the powers that be in America and carried out on unsuspecting American citizens. As the Alliance for Human Research Protection points out, these barbaric practices continue even today, "while government agencies maneuver to weaken legal protections prohibiting the exposure of human beings to experimental drugs, vaccines and procedures without their voluntary informed consent." And with the demise of investigative reporting, these human rights violations are rarely published and gain little public notice.

Unless we reaffirm our commitment to the dignity and rights of all human beings--and teach this principle in our homes and schools and continue into the highest levels of our public institutions and government, such experiments will continue. And we will have little right to condemn or object to the inhumane practices of other countries.

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His most recent books are the best-selling Battlefield America: The War on the American People, the award-winning A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, and a debut dystopian fiction novel, The Erik Blair Diaries. Whitehead can be contacted at Nisha Whitehead is the Executive Director of The Rutherford Institute. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at

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