Lessons from History: Looking to the Future
A Final Note
A Final NoteThe Committee's findings and recommendations represent our best efforts to distill almost eighteen months of inquiry into, debate about, and analysis of human radiation experiments. But what they cannot fully express is the appreciation we developed for how much damage was done to individuals and to the American people during the period we investigated and how this damage endures today. The damage we speak of here is not physical injury, although this too did occur in some cases. Rather, the damage is measured in the pain felt by people who believe that they or their loved ones were treated with disrespect for their dignity and disregard for their interests by a government and a profession in which they had placed their trust. It is measured in a too-often cynical citizenry, some of whom have lost faith in their government to be honest brokers of information about risks to the public and the purposes of government actions. And it is measured in the confusion among patients that remains today about the differences between medical research and medical care--differences that can impede the ability of patients to determine what is in their own best interest.
In the period that we examined, extraordinary advances in biomedicine were achieved and a foundation was laid for fifty years without a world war. At the same time, however, it was a time of arrogance and paternalism on the part of government officials and the biomedical community that we would not under any circumstances wish to see repeated.
As we listened to the heart-rending testimony of many public witnesses, we came to feel great sorrow about the suffering they described. Our most difficult task was determining what to recommend as the appropriate national response to these emotions and the events that stimulated them. What can best precipitate the healing of wounds and the restoration of trust? Appropriate remedies for those who were wronged or harmed were of critical importance, but remedies alone speak only to the past, not the future. It is equally important that, the historical record having been spelled out and appropriate remedies identified, we as a nation move forward and take action to prevent similar occurrences from happening in the future. In the end, if trust in government is to be restored, those in power must always act in good faith in their dealings with the citizenry. At the same time, however, we must recognize that unless we have expectations of honesty and fairness from our government and unless we are vigilant in holding the government to those expectations, trust will never be restored.
Finally, we hope that this report conveys the sense of gratitude and honor that we experienced as citizens serving on the Advisory Committee. We were provided by the President with extraordinary access to the records of our past and given complete liberty to deliberate on what we found. Although some of what we report is a matter for national regret, our freedom of inquiry, and the cooperation we received from officials and fellow citizens of all perspectives, confirms that our nation's highest traditions are not things of the past but live very much in the present.