Vaccines and Autism: Conflicting Accounts Based on Race

These articles relate to a study run by the Center for Disease control that caused a lot of controversy around the issue of certain vaccines causing an increased risk for developing autism, specifically within African American males.

The first article details how different African American male babies were given an experimental vaccine supposed to help prevent MMR. However, the article goes on to mention is that the CDC found a link between this disease, the time it was administered in babies and how it caused these children to be at a higher risk for autism.  According to the article, nothing was done with this information and this new information was not given to the parents who were signing up for this study.  Because of this, the article argues that this was not informed consent and that the doctors and scientists at the CDC were not providing the proper informed consent to these parents.

The second article completely disagrees with the first article, saying instead that the correlations found between African American male babies, increased risk for autism and this vaccine just that, correlations.  This article continues on to say that these correlations were blown out of proportion and often the data was misunderstood.  There is the underlying message in this article that not only are there not risks with this vaccine, but also that by creating rumors of its link to autism,  this prevents parents from vaccinating their children.  This causes the vaccines in the general public to not work.

I think that this story clearly illustrates the concept we talked about in class about how many different doctors believed that there were differences in the races, and because of this, had different reactions to the same medication.  This type of thinking is exceedingly dangerous, especially because it was proved by the human genome project that there is no such think as different human races.  And as outlined in the second article, it is extremely dangerous for children to not have their vaccinations, as it opens themselves and other children to the risk of contracting a very dangerous disease.  This is also another example of singling out an already marginalized group and turning them more against the healthcare community, when these vaccines could help save their child’s life.

Everyone is a Test Subject: Human Experimentation in America

This article details the various atrocities that were committed by American doctors against many different people, including the mentally ill, those with a debilitating illness and those in prison.  These groups of people were also often predominantly people of color, either that lived in the United States or in other countries.  The article begin by detailing various experiments done on humans in the United States, starting back 80 years.  Most involved not getting consent from their test subjects, performing harmful “treatments” and even refusing to treat a disease in certain test subjects in order to see the disease take its full course.  These different experiments were never publicized in the media, but whenever news of a study did break, the doctors covered it up by explaining how it created medical advances.  In fact, the doctors that completed this research were unashamed of their work, publishing their findings in journal articles.

This article perfectly incapacitates the injustices faced by marginalized people in the United States, and how their doctors, people that had taken an oath to do no harm, had utterly and completely betrayed them.  The doctors completing these experiments only saw these people as test subjects that would improve medicine for wealthy Americans.  This is similar to many of the common themes of the class, where individuals in a position of power take advantage of people in order to create advances in the science that these marginalized people will never get to see.

I also think that these examples also show how media can color people’s perceptions of these barbaric acts.  The media never covered any of these experiments and when they did, they only looked at it from the doctors point of view.  All other opinions and thoughts were excluded from the narrative.  This prevented the general public from seeing all the horrors that were being committed in the name of science.  This also forced marginalized people to seek other forms of medicine, as it was clear the traditional, Western medicine and its practitioners could not be trusted.

The Standford Prison Experiment as a Living Laboratory

These articles detail Philip Zimbardo’s infamous psychology experiment entitled The Standford Prison Experiment.  This experiment was designed to see if people would take on a certain persona when put into different situations.  To test this, 24 males were taken and split into two different groups.  Half would serve as prisoners in this experiment and the other half would serve as the guards in the prison.  With consent and the knowledge that the participants could leave the study at any point, the prisoners were “arrested” and the experiment began.  This psychology experiment soon turned very dark, with abuse of the prisoners by the guards occurring very rapidly.  It was clear that both sets of individuals had fully taken on the different personas that Zimbardo had arbitrarily put them in.  And though the experiment was going to last for two full weeks, it was cut short and ended after 6 days, because of the intensity of the abuse that was occurring within the study.

This study highlights many themes that are quite common in a living laboratory, while also being quite unique in the fact that it was a psychology experiment with an artificial setting, as these men were not actually living in a prison.  And what also made this study quite interesting was how abuse was not only happening within the experiment, but what the horrific results of the experiment demonstrates about treatment in prisons in general.

This experiment tied back into the theme of experimenting on people with limited power.  The entirety of the experiment rested on the backs of the prisoners, who were brutally tortured and many of whom were emotional damaged for a long time after the experiment ended.  This type of abuse on a certain group of people for the knowledge, benefit and amusement of others is reminiscent to many of the living laboratories discussed in class.  And the horrific results of the experiment, of how guards will treat their prisoners, can be extrapolated to a different laboratory, the current prison system in the United States.  This experiment shows that within the prison system, there are common themes of abuse of the powerless by the powerful and that the people within them are marginalized.  And this abuse in the prison system does nothing to rehabilitate the people within the system, and rather feeds into the vicious cycle of incarceration that occurs in this country.

The San Antonio Contraceptive Study: Exploitation in Reproductive Rights

Briar Patch

These articles discuss a study that was conducted in 1970 on unknowing, poor Mexican American women that related human experimentation with reproductive rights.  The study was conducted in San Antonio and consisted of 86 women.  They were told that they were going to be receiving birth control pills and these women, many that came from Planned Parenthood, agreed.  What was unknown to them at the time was the fact that half way through the experiment, half of the women were going to be given a placebo pill with no hormones at all.  This change was without them knowing and without any of them consenting to this change.  This led to 10 of the women in this study ending up with unexpected children.

This study is reminiscent of many of the themes that are evident in the other sources we have discussed.  First, the fact that this experiment was done on poor Mexican American women.  This exploitation of the lower class and immigrants is clearly the doctors way of getting away with experimenting with such a thing like birth control.  This would never have been acceptable if it was performed on someone from the upper class.  By exploiting the fact that they were poor and needed to go somewhere like planned parenthood to receive their birth control, the doctor was able to satisfy his curiosity of what was going to happen when birth control was stopped. Second, this is evident on how many doctors did not view these women as their equals.  They saw as something to perform experiments on, nothing more.  It was even more shocking because it was clear what the outcome of this study was going to be, and it was still done with no thought on what effects it was going to have on the individuals who were wrongfully tricked into participating.

Many of the other sources discussed in the seminar have had horrific things done in the name of science and medicine.  Most of them benefited some person, mostly the people who did not have to undergo the procedure.  However, this experiment did not bring about any new information to science or medicine.  Rather, a doctor wanted to see what would happened in, in turn, led these unsuspecting and non consenting women to a future they could not have expected.

Tuskegee Syphilis Study: When Race and Medicine collide

Beginning in 1932 and continuing for another 40 years, the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment was designed to see the effects of syphilis on black subjects.  For this study, 600 poor, illiterate men from Alabama were enrolled with incentives like free medical examinations, free food on days they were in the hospital and even burial insurance.  These men, however, were never told what the true purpose of the study was.  In fact, this study was to see how the disease played out, from infection till death of the patient.  When penicillin was discovered as a cure for syphilis this information and life saving medication was withheld from them, causing most of the participants to die from their curable illness.  It wasn’t until 1972 that the horrors of the experiments were released to the public and the surviving victims and their families were awarded 10 million dollars and free medical and burial services for survivors, widows and offspring.  This is a clear violation of many fundamental human rights, and a clear example of unethical human experimentation.  The public outcry was one of horror, and became another reason why African Americans feared medical professionals, because there was always the fear that they were not receiving the cures for illnesses they had, rather were part of a secret medical experiment that they were not informed about or consented to.

This situation led to a movie, entitled Ms. Evers’ Boys, that follows a black nurse that helps the white doctors facilitate this experiment and then is called in during the lawsuit to testify, which is shown in the clip above.  This clip shows what happens when medical professionals think that what they are doing is for the greater good.  The nurse thinks that this is experiment was to help both blacks and whites, even saying that the doctors were able to reach a conclusion from these experiments, that blacks and whites had no difference in the course of disease.  The nurse, although she is also black, shapes the experiment as though this is going to be a great help to the black community.

However, it is clear from the records and layout of this experiment that this was not actually the case.  The experiment went on 40 years and many people died, even after a cure for the disease was found.  If this experiment had been for the betterment of the whole community, the cure would have been used to see how the individuals would react.  Instead, the scientists watched the subjects suffer and die because of their own curiosity.  As said in the clip, this type of experimentation would never have happened to whites, as they were being considered the medical norm, rather than the medical anomaly.  The clip ends with the nurse saying that she and the doctors should not be blamed for their actions because it was for the betterment of medicine.  However, like many of the other examples of medical experimentation on subjects, the betterment was only for the white community, who got the benefit and the results of the experiments without having to go through the life ending syphilis experiments that all these African Americans had to go through.

Henrietta Lacks: Immortal cells and Racial Conflicts

Henrietta Lacks, a poor black tobacco farmer, had an extremely influential role  in the field of medicine, from the polio vaccine to cancer research.  Her contribution, however, is embroiled in controversy because she was used but had given no consent.  What makes this story a little tricky however, was the fact that she had contributed her cells, later to found to be immortal, and then died.  The ethical questions about this story continue to this day especially when looking at ownership of your own cells before and after your death.

Henrietta Lacks met her untimely demise by a severe cases of cervical cancer.  When she was close to death the doctors overseeing her case took some of her cervical cancer cells, without her permission or her family’s permission or knowledge, to run typical tests.  However, during these tests and to all the doctors’ surprise, these cells were immortal, meaning that these cells could continuously split and reproduce, unlike normal cells that will eventually die off.  This discovery led to a billion-dollar medical industry and many medical advances.   This success story came to a jarring halt when  a journalist, Rebecca Skloot, made an effort to track down Lacks’s surviving family.  In her book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the journalist revealed that not only did the family never see any of the profits of an industry based on their mother’s cells, but also that these individuals had been without adequate healthcare and living in poverty.

Though not performed on a living human, these cells represent a laboratory that is riddled with controversy.  These controversies, ranging from the lack of information and compensation that the family received to the fact that permission was never received, lead to a couple different ethical questions.  And many of these questions boil down a person’s ownership of their individual cells.  The doctors and scientists that worked on this case explained away their use of Lack’s cells by saying that they were part of a tumor that was going to be removed anyway.  That Lacks did not have any say, and by extension did not need to give consent, after the cells had been removed from her body.  This is in an effort to show that the importance of the cells and the advancements that were developed from these cells were completely justified to do what they did.

However, some of these arguments do not take into account that consent was never received for the use of these cells.  Even though they were being removed, consent should have been given for test not related to her cervical cancer analysis, even if they were going to be thrown out after these tests.  These cells still belonged to Lacks, and after her death, her family.  I found this reminiscent to when dead bodies were used for cadaver lab without consent in the previous unit. This lack of respect for the dead is an interesting theme, and I wonder if this behavior would have been acceptable if she had come from a better background.

Their other argument, saying that the discoveries were worth it, dehumanizes Henrietta Lacks, and tries to make lack of consent acceptable.  These articles also reminded me of the reoccurring theme that blacks were afraid of going to hospitals and being seen by white doctors.

In other cases, the human body was being violated and mistreated.  This case dictates a scenario where your cells were used without your consent and without your knowledge.  The ethical issues surrounding this demonstrate the strain that occurred between white doctors, and by extension white scientists, and their black patients, that were often seen as subjects in a study rather than patients.