Scientific Racism and Eugenics Cautionary Tales

In considering the ethical implications of race in human genetics research, it is prudent to review the lessons learned from the history of scientific racism in medicine. In the United States and abroad scientific racism has resulted in the exploitation of racially identified populations in the name of scientific and medical progress. Although science often has been portrayed as value-free, scientific theories have been used to support beliefs in the inferiority of racialized populations. Historically, race began as a biological taxonomy by which humans were categorized according to phenotypic differences such as skin color and facial features and by supposed personality traits. Despite general rejection of such definitions, scientific research is at times compromised by a priori assumptions that build on notions of race as biology.

The term eugenics, which was coined by Francis Galton early in the twentieth century, has been incorporated into various state-sponsored programs around the world (Galton). The most notorious of those programs was guided by the German program of Rassenhygiene, or "racial hygiene," that led ultimately to the Holocaust. In the early 1900s the eugenics program was promoted through scientific organizations such as the Society for Racial Hygiene and the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Genetics and Eugenics. Later, when incorporated into Nazi ideology after the rise of Adolph Hitler, the racial hygiene program led to a broad spectrum of egregious scientific experimentation and the eventual extermination of millions of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and other individuals deemed undesirable by the Third Reich (Weigmann).

During that period of state-sponsored racism, other nations, such as Great Britain, Norway, and France, were adopting their own brands of eugenics policies. Eugenics gave scientific authority to social fears and lent respectability to racial doctrines. Powered by the prestige of science, it was coupled with modernizing national projects that promoted claims of social order as objective statements grounded in the laws of nature (Dikotter). Unfortunately, history provides several examples of how the marriage of scientific racism and national political agendas has led to the unfair treatment of socially and politically vulnerable racial minorities. In South America, for example, eugenic policies have been the key to a national revival in which indigenous concerns over racially diverse and socially disparate societies have led to race-based initiatives to regulate human reproduction. Brazil and Argentina have experienced the use of science in the name of forging "superior and cosmic national races" (Stepans).

Perhaps the longest single study involving the exploitation of human subjects in medical research was the Tuskegee Syphilis Study conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service. The study, which was called the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male, began in 1932 and did not end until 1972. The study involved the recruitment of over 300 black men with syphilis who were told by researchers that they were being treated for "bad blood," a local term used to describe several ailments, including syphilis, anemia, and fatigue (Jones). Those men did not receive proper treatment even after penicillin became available as an effective therapy in 1943. In exchange for taking part in the study, the men received free medical examinations, free meals, and burial insurance. The Tuskegee Study caused a public outcry that led the assistant secretary for health and scientific affairs to appoint an Ad Hoc Advisory Panel that concluded that the Tuskegee Study was "ethically unjustified" (Brandt). It is a "powerful metaphor that has come to symbolize racism in medicine" (Gamble) and a cautionary tale about the vulnerability of racial minorities in biomedical research.

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