Human beings inherit various genes from their predecessors, an occurrence that determines their physical and academic skills, health, among other traits. During the 19th and 20th century, medicine and biomedical research focused on human experimentation in an attempt to adjust the genetic qualities of human beings. While present ethics disregard any form of human experimentation, the 19th and 20th-century scientists and biologists heavily practiced experiments identified under the scientific term Eugenics.
Coined by Francis Galton, Eugenics denoted the factors that improve or impair the physical and mental racial qualities of future generations (Allen 225). Various countries across the globe used a section of the population to perform experiments that would either increase their abilities or eradicate their existence. Forced mating was imposed on the physically fit while the crippled and weak were sterilized and rid from the population. The emergence of Eugenics as an approach to improving the hereditary process in humans was an unethical practice that saw the misuse of the population through experiments.
Human Subjects for Eugenics
During the 19th and 20th century, governments and scientists in various nations used animal and human subjects while testing the desirable and undesirable qualities in humans. These experiments attempted to eradicate certain diseases or populations deemed unfit. Most of the methods used were brutal with soldiers forcefully quarantining the sick from a specific population with the aim of preventing a disease spread. For instance, the advent of the bubonic plague in Senegal saw the French authorities employ ruthless approaches to prevent its spread, such as the forceful removal and quarantine of locals, torching of infected households, unceremonious burials, among others. Eugenics supported the notion of imposing scientific experimentations on those considered as inferior qualities (Ferguson 175).
The science of the 19th and 20th century believed that members of the lower class had a weak body constitution from inherited weaknesses. Countries like Germany used their best scientists to perform experimentations on their African colonies who ranked below the Aryan ‘master race’ (Ferguson 176). Other candidates included soldiers of war and prisoners of World War 2. It was also common for scientists to perform experiments on children, pregnant women, poor patients, and homeless individuals. Any outbreak of a disease saw the relevant authorities subject the population to brutal measures in an attempt to curb the spread of the disease.
Types of scientific and medical experimentation
Nations like Japan, America, and Germany performed different types of experiments on their locals, prisoners, and adversaries. Experiments performed during this era focused on the pathological and normal genetics of human beings. Some of the common experiments performed in Japan against the allied soldiers and American prisoners of war included extreme temperature and pressure testing, dehydration, vivisections, poisoning, dissections, infection with deadly viruses, starvation, and dehydration (Kaufman 646). Numerous individuals were compelled to swallow, inhale or receive injections of bodily specimens as a way of comprehending the clinical courses, transmission, and involved agents of various forms of infectious illnesses.
The scientists used animals as prototypes for experiments that later involved humans. In Germany, Nachtsheim identified illnesses in animals that were later experimented on humans (Baader et al. 208). For instance, the research identified epileptic symptoms in rabbit and used the initial experiment as a stepping stone for advanced research in humans. Subsequent experiments involved the placement of six children in a low-pressure chamber to identify the main agents that exacerbate the disease in humans (Baader et al. 208). The aim of the experiment was to relate the symptoms presented in animal experiments to that of human eugenics. For the German scientists, epilepsy was an inherited gene that required sterilization of the affected population.
Sterilization was a popular experiment in America during the 20th century. Sterilization involved the manipulation of the human reproductive system through approaches like a vasectomy. Sterilization was aimed at ridding the nation of the population with undesirable traits. In 1907, Indiana passed a law that obligated the sterilization of undesirable members of society like imbeciles, rapists, idiots, and criminals (Oswald 67).
Sterilization laws were passed in eighteen other states during the same period as an approach to prevent procreation of undesirable members of the society. In America, sterilization was used as a strategy of integrating criminals back to society. For every sentenced individual, sterilization was provided at the end of his term and family members were informed before they were allowed back home. Criminals would be released on parole and the mentally retarded offered guardians on the condition that they never sire children due to economic and hereditary reasons (Oswald 72). Sterilization experiments were solely based on mental illness and other undesirable human traits being hereditary.
Chemical warfare experiments on animals and humans were also common to the Nazis. Germany’s defeat of World War 1 compelled Hitler to organize chemical warfare experiments that discovered ways of treating casualties of gas attacks (Baader et al 212). The agents included small animals and upgraded to larger mammals and lastly humans. The experiments would only include larger agents if they produced positive results.
The animals were housed in 100m3 gas chambers to identify the chemical’s reaction to the ski, eyes and other body organs. Upon success, the scientists used German cadets who received extra compensation for their part in the experiment. The inclusion of human subjects was aimed at identifying treatment methods on the negative skin reactions resulting from mustard gas and other war gases. The experiments also included employees of the army operated institutions who were used as test subjects for anti-gas protective gear. If the scientists could identify the effects and reaction caused by war gases, they could effectively create remedies that would assist in other attacks.
In Japan, experiments involved the deliberate infection of the local population and Japan’ adversaries with deadly diseases. The Japanese scientists created plagues and used those considered as unworthy and undesirable as agents of their experiments. Most of the Japanese experiments included vaccine testing. For instance, a 1943 experiment involved the inoculation of 50 Chinese and Manchurian men with variable amounts of vaccine (Baader et al 222).
For the non-vaccinated, they were compelled to drink typhoid-contaminated water, which caused the death of a majority of them after contracting typhoid. Humans were also exposed to cold weather during the winter in an attempt to identify the remedy for frostbite, which could create a competitive advantage when the Japanese were fighting the Soviets. All Japanese experiments were aimed at creating desirable traits within the population, which would assist in their desire to become a global leader.
Ethics of human experimentation
Even though scientists sought to improve the health of humans through experimentation, there are numerous cases of unethical practices that do not justify the approaches taken by countries to eliminate undesirable characteristics. One of the reasons the experimentations were unjustifiable was the criteria used to identify the agents. In most cases, human subjects were selected based on their race, social status, physical, and mental abilities.
In countries like Senegal and Congo, Africans were sidelined and exposed to brutal disease prevention methods that led to the death of many. Any outbreak of a disease was attributed to the undesirable and weak qualities of the black race who were compared to primates (Ferguson 176). Additionally, reports by Stobbe shows that America avoided treating members of the black community upon successful identification of a treatment. For instance, the study cites the Tuskegee Syphilis study where American health officials failed to deliver the penicillin required for treating Syphilis to 600 black men. Such discriminatory practices employed by the responsible parties identified the negative aspects of human experimentation.
Another reason for the unjustifiable nature of human experimentation was the high mortality rate. In nations like Japan, Baader et al identify the total number of deaths from Unit 731 experiments as approximately 3,000 in a decade (221). They compelled individuals to drink water contaminated with typhoid that resulted in the deaths of most of the subjects. Additionally, countries like Germany used helpless members of society like children to identify the symptoms and treatment of epilepsy.
Reports emerged that the six children placed under the low-pressure were affected negatively with some dying in the process. Unit 731’s experiments also caused immense suffering for the human subjects. Reports have shown that the experiments involved live dissection without anesthesia. While performing experiments on volunteers are acceptable, it should not cause harm, death or include those who are incapable of identifying their rights.
Most of the experiments performed in nations like America were aimed at tampering with the human reproduction system. While it is possible for humans to inherit diseases from their forefathers, there is no evidence that offspring can inherit delinquent qualities from their parents. The main reason for sterilization experiments in America was to prevent the reproduction of criminals, delinquents, and imbeciles.
The experiments infringed the rights of prisoners who were compelled to participate in sterilization experiments as a way of securing their release. For instance, Stobbe identifies 1915 by Dr. Joseph Goldberger that involved the recruitment of Mississippi inmates to experience special rations to provide evidence that dietary deficiency caused pellagra. The prisoner status of an individual does not justify the infringement of their rights for the glory of science.
Human experimentation has been a subject of debate that is largely considered as unethical. While most experiments sought to create a society free from diseases and undesirable members, the methods employed infringed the rights of human beings. Human experiments in America, Japan, and Germany involved exposure of humans to deadly viruses, painful experiments, and death. The criteria used for selecting subjects was unjustifiable as it was founded on racial and discriminatory grounds.
The criteria considered Africans as a lesser race, as well as those with mental disorders, and the members of a lower social class. Any experiment that causes harm to the subjects should not be carried out as it creates more harm than good. Every human being deserves the right to a good life regardless of their physical, racial, mental or economic background.
- Allen, Garland E. ‘The Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, 1910-1940: An Essay in Institutional History.’ Osiris, vol. 2, 1986, pp. 225-264.
- Baader, Gerhard, et al. ‘Pathways to Human Experimentation, 1933-1945: Germany, Japan, and the United States.’ Osiris, vol. 20, 2005, pp. 205-231.
- Ferguson, Niall. Civilization: The West and the Rest. Penguin Books; Reprint edition, 2012.
- Kaufman, Zachary D. ‘Transitional Justice Delayed Is Not Transitional Justice Denied: Contemporary Confrontation of Japanese Human Experimentation During World War II Through a People’s Tribunal.’ Yale Law & Policy Review, vol. 26, no. 2, 2008, pp. 645-659.
- Oswald, Frances. ‘Eugenical Sterilization in the United States.’ American Journal of Sociology, vol. 36, no. 1, 1930, pp. 65-73.
- Stobbe, Mike. ‘Ugly Past of U.S. Human Experiments Uncovered.’ Msnbc.com, 27 Feb. 2011, www.nbcnews.com/id/41811750/ns/health-health_care/t/ugly-past-us-human-experiments-uncovered/.