Experimenting on Human Subjects 

Experimenting on Human Subjects - Tuskegee Institute Historic Site
Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site

One of the challenges of medical science is how to test a new drug or procedure on humans. If people are nothing more than animals, science can justify experimenting on human subjects for the common good. For example, German and Japanese scientists conducted experiments on World War II prisoners against their will. After the war, international courts prosecuted German doctors and scientists for war crimes related to human experimentation. Japanese researchers did not face trial because the U.S. agreed not to prosecute in exchange for access to their data.

Out of the prosecution of German researchers came what is called “The Nuremberg Code.” It involves ten statements describing the ethical standards for experimenting on human subjects in research. In simple terms, the ten statements are: 

  1. Participants must give consent without stress or force.
  2. The research must be able to show benefits for the good of society. 
  3. Findings should justify the experiment. 
  4. Research should avoid mental suffering and physical harm. 
  5. No one should be killed or injured. 
  6. Risks should not outweigh the benefits. 
  7. The research should protect participants from injury or death. 
  8. The researcher must be qualified to do the research. 
  9. Participants should be able to stop participating at any time. 
  10. The researcher must be prepared to stop the study at any time. 

A classic example of how far things can go in today’s world, even in the United States, is the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Male Negro.” That study continued from 1932 to 1972. The United States Public Health Service recruited 600 African American men with syphilis offering them free meals and burial stipends for the right to their bodies after they died. Unfortunately, no medical treatment was made available to those men, and they were subjected to painful spinal taps. You can imagine what they went through with 40 years of untreated syphilis raging in their bodies. 

Looking at what happened in this terrible event brings to mind the struggles in America today. In the past, society considered blacks to be less human than whites. For that reason, causing them pain and premature death to benefit the scientific establishment was deemed to be acceptable. The “black lives matter” movement of today is rooted in this kind of history. 

More to the point is that science ignored the teachings of the Bible. The Bible tells us that humans are created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), and the body is the temple of God’s Spirit, and defiling the temple invites God’s wrath (1 Corinthians 3:16-17). That means not caring for every person is a rebellion against God. Experimenting on human subjects in the Tuskegee experiment can only be justified if you view blacks as less than human. It also requires embracing the notion that survival of the fittest means it is acceptable to sacrifice the less fit to benefit the fit. Many people today do not accept the Christian view that all humans are special because we are created in the image of God. We can see the result of that in the chaos tearing at the fabric of society. 

— John N. Clayton © 2021

For more on the history of the Tuskegee study see “Who Dares to Speak Up” in the July/August 2021 issue of American Scientist, pages 238 -242.