Lessons Learned A Half-Century of Experimenting on Humans

By Moreno, Jonathan D. | The Humanist, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Lessons Learned A Half-Century of Experimenting on Humans


Moreno, Jonathan D., The Humanist


Just a few months after Richard Nixon left the White House in disgrace, the country's confidence in its institutions was further undermined by news stories about clandestine CIA activities within the United States during the 1950s and 1960s. A congressional committee under Senator Frank Church of Idaho and a presidential commission under Vice President Nelson Rockefeller were established to investigate the charges. In the summer of 1975, the truth about domestic experiments with psychoactive drugs, most pervasively lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), began pouring out.

Approximately 6,700 human subjects were used by the government in experiments involving psychoactive chemicals. In private contract research with universities and chemical companies, other agents were also used, including morphine, Demerol, Seconal, mescaline, atropine, and psilocybin.

One of those used in LSD experiments while he was in the army, James B. Stanley, was inspired to undertake a historic attempt to get the U.S. Supreme Court to recognize the Nuremberg Code--from the 1947 ruling in the trial of Nazi Germans who conducted experiments on concentration camp inmates--as having the force of law in the U.S. armed forces. In February 1958, Master Sergeant Stanley was stationed with his wife and children at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Responding to a posted notice, he volunteered to be a subject in a study advertised as developing and testing measures against chemical weapons. He then became one of thousands of men to be transferred to Edgewood Arsenal in Aberdeen, Maryland, for LSD experiments.

But Stanley was never told that the clear liquid he drank for the test contained a psychoactive drug, nor was he debriefed or monitored for the hallucinations that followed, nor did he understand the source of the emotional problems that disrupted his personal life, leading finally to his divorce in 1970. In 1975 Stanley finally learned the truth when he received a letter from the army asking him to come to the Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., for a follow-up study of the LSD subjects.

Stanley was one of several veterans who sued the government for the suffering the LSD experiments caused them. His case went the furthest, all the way to the Supreme Court, which by a five-to-four decision found that, like all other current or former members of the armed forces, Stanley was barred from suing the United States for injuries incurred "incident to service"--a legal rule known as the Feres Doctrine. Justice William Brennan dissented:

   The medical trials at Nuremberg in 1947 deeply impressed upon the world
   that experimentation with unknowing human subjects is morally and legally
   unacceptable. The United States Military Tribunal established the Nuremberg
   Code as a standard against which to judge German scientists who
   experimented with human subjects.... In defiance of this principle,
   military intelligence officials ... began surreptitiously testing chemical
   and biological materials, including LSD.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor added her own dissent:

   No judicially crafted rule should insulate from liability the involuntary
   and unknowing human experimentation alleged to have occurred in this case.
   Indeed, as Justice Brennan observes, the United States played an
   instrumental role in the criminal prosecution of Nazi officials who
   experimented with human subjects during the Second World War, and the
   standards that the Nuremberg Military Tribunals developed to judge the
   behavior of the defendants stated that the voluntary consent of the human
   subject is absolutely essential.

The irony of Stanley's defeat is that it shows how toothless the Pentagon's Nuremberg Code-based policy was. Rules were in effect during his participation in the LSD experiments, but even following the army's own study that concluded these rules were violated, someone victimized by the results of failed implementation could not recover damages in a court of law. …

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