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Opinion
Thérèse Margolis
Thérèse Margolis Guatemala versus Baltimore The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 842 victims and their families
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The Land of Eternal Springtime is suing Charm City.

Late last month, a federal judge in Maryland decided to allow a $1 billion lawsuit against Johns Hopkins University and several other Baltimore-based institutions involved in a 1940s U.S. government experiment to infect nearly 1,500 Guatemalans with syphilis and other venereal diseases to move forward.

The suit also names the nonprofit Rockefeller Foundation (which financed the Johns Hopkins clinic and research center focused on syphilis) and pharmaceutical multinational Bristol-Myers Squibb as defendants (which also participated in the experiment).

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 842 victims and their families in 2016 and was initially dismissed by a lower court due to insufficient evidence.

But in July, U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis reviewed the case and opted to nullify the city’s motion to dismiss.

The attorneys representing the Guatemalans have refiled their case with additional evidence showing how, as part of a U.S.-government-led experiment, healthy Guatemalan soldiers, students, prisoners and mental patients were intentionally infected with syphilis, gonorrhea and chancroid (a sexually transmitted disease that produces painful and necrotizing genital ulcers) in order to study how these ailments could be treated with antibiotics.

Although then-Guatemalan President Juan José Arevalo signed off with the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Pan American Sanitary Bureau to proceed with the research, none of the subjects of the study consented to being infected, and most were unaware of their participation.

At least 83 of the patients died as a result of the infections.

The results of the study were never published, and for decades, the so-called Guatemala Experiment remained secret.

But in 2010, Susan Mokotoff Reverby, a researcher at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, unearthed evidence of the experiment while investigating the equally heinous Tuskegee syphilis study (in which 600 black men were infected with syphilis in the 1930s).

When the full horror of the Guatemala Experiment came to light, the United States issued a formal apology, calling it “a dark chapter in history of medicine.”

But an “I’m sorry” is cold comfort for the victims and their families.

The suit against Johns Hopkins, whose doctors made up a medical panel that reviewed and approved the experiment, at least holds the culprits of this terrible violation of human rights responsible.

Johns Hopkins and the other Baltimore-based institutions being sued insist that they were simply following a policy established by the U.S. government and were therefore not responsible for what happened to the victims of the experiment.

They have asked the U.S. District Court to dismiss the charges against them on the grounds that they were just doing their job.

So much for “first, do no harm.”

Thérèse Margolis can be reached at therse.margolis@gmail.com.

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