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The Monstrous Dr. Cutler and His Willing Researchers

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David Mills - published on 05/12/15

The profitable logic of utilitarianism

Eight-hundred victims of an astonishingly evil experiment run between 1945 and 1956 are suing Johns Hopkins University, the Rockefeller Foundation, and Bristol-Myers Squibb for one billion dollars. The federal government sponsored the study but can’t be sued for it, so the victims’ lawyer hopes to get something from the institutions the victims can sue.

These institutions all deny responsibility. The university’s lawyer called the suit “baseless” and said that professors working on government projects are not acting for the university, but for the government.

The man who ran the experiments, Dr. John C. Cutler, was a monster. A monster who died after a long and successful life in government and academia, with scholarships and lectures created in his memory. (He had gone on to work on the notorious Tuskegee experiments before becoming assistant surgeon general and then a professor at the University of Pittsburgh.)

As readers may remember from the news reports when the story broke in 2011, he experimented upon poor Guatemalans, including mental patients and orphans as young as nine, trying to find a cure for syphilis. The most horrifying example was “that of a mental patient named Berta.” She was, said the New York Times, reporting on a hearing of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues,

first deliberately infected with syphilis and, months later, given penicillin. After that, Dr. John C. Cutler of the Public Health Service, who led the experiments, described her as so unwell that she “appeared she was going to die.” Nonetheless, he inserted pus from a male gonorrhea victim into her eyes, urethra and rectum. Four days later, infected in both eyes and bleeding from the urethra, she died.


We do not know exactly how horrific the experiments were, but that’s only because Cutler kept such poor records, and because he knew he was not supposed to be doing what he was doing and kept the experiments hidden. He was working for the government, and important people knew what he was doing in Guatemala — including the surgeon general, Dr. Thomas Parran, who noted, “You know, we couldn’t do such an experiment in this country.”

The Presidential Commission condemned Cutler for failing to get the informed consent of his subjects, which is something but less than a full defense of human dignity and human rights. The deepest problem with Cutler was not his refusing to ask his victims if he could experiment on them, but his belief that they were the sort of creatures he didn’t need to ask. His offense wasn’t just deceiving people but treating them as people who could justifiably be deceived. His sin wasn’t just using them as means but seeing them as means.

Some members of the commission recognized this. Its chairman, the University of Pennsylvania’s Amy Gutmann, said that Cutler “did not treat them [his victims] as human beings. He thought of them as material” for study. One member, the University of Virginia’s John Arras, said the researchers’ “attitude toward the Guatemalan people was pretty much what you’d expect if they were doing research on rabbits.”

We can guess why. They were judged proper subjects for experimentation because they were Guatemalan, or poor, or dark-skinned, or simply because they were vulnerable and lived out of sight. He could get away with it. They were the kind of people wealthy, powerful, white Americans could exploit — which exploitation seems to have included, in Berta’s case at least, something very close to murder.

No one defends Cutler now, but some who wrote on the story stressed how worried he was about the spread of syphilis in the United States. Many would say — in other circumstances, when the subject wasn’t being publicly despised — that his goals were compassionate, that he did what he did for the greater good, that you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.

Yes, okay. But if that is so, why are the eggs to be broken always the poor, marginalized, defenseless? Why do the makers of omelets never break themselves? And why are those omelets served first and mostly to the makers and their friends?

Whatever may be said for it as a philosophical system, utilitarianism provides a wonderful excuse for exploiting the poor for  your own benefit and the benefit of those you care about, or of those who pay you. Just make (if you have to) a small adjustment in the way you think of certain people and they turn into things whose eyes, urethra, and rectum you can put gonorrhea-filled pus and watch what happens as they die.

We should not underestimate the number of utilitarians in political office, scientific labs, corporate executive suites, magazine offices, and university faculties. Poor Latin Americans are safe, for now, but others aren’t. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that someone is conducting morally problematic experiments in rural Africa.

Men in white coats, some of them professors at major universities and others employees of major corporations, experiment on embryonic human beings all over this country. They will protest that the cases of the nameless embryo and the Guatemalan woman named Berta are different, that the embryo is not fully human, not yet a person, that it can therefore be destroyed for the greater good. Which is what Cutler must have thought of Berta and her peers. 

David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika, and columnist for several Catholic publications. His latest book is Discovering Mary.Follow him @DavidMillsWrtng. 

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