The blog of the 2009 – 2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

Ethically Sound Episode 8: Ethically Impossible

Ethically Impossible,” the eighth episode of the Bioethics Commission’s podcast series Ethically Sound, is now available. Ethically Sound is based bioethics_twitter-v3-08on the 10 reports that the Bioethics Commission has produced during its tenure. The Bioethics Commission, established in 2009 by Executive Order, has addressed a wide variety of ethical challenges ranging from synthetic biology to neuroscience. This episode is based on the Bioethics Commission’s second report Ethically Impossible: STD Research in Guatemala from 1946-1948.

In what is now recognized as an infamous episode in the history of research ethics, the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) conducted unethical sexually transmitted disease (STD) experiments in Guatemala from 1946 through 1948. The Guatemala STD experiments were carried out with ongoing oversight by PHS and with the approval and engagement of Guatemalan government officials. The research involved intentionally exposing and infecting several vulnerable Guatemalan research subject populations—prisoners, soldiers, and psychiatric patients—to disease, without their consent. When these studies were revealed in 2010, President Barack Obama extended an apology to the President and people of Guatemala. President Obama charged the Bioethics Commission to conduct an ethical analysis of the research that took place, and to review current federal regulations to protect research participants. The Bioethics Commission conducted a thorough fact-finding investigation, reviewed more than 125,000 pages of documentation related to these studies, and traveled to Guatemala to meet with Guatemala’s own investigation committee. The Bioethics Commission’s report presents an unvarnished ethical analysis of the research studies that occurred, and concludes that these studies involved “unconscionable basic violations of ethics.” The Bioethics Commission’s third report Moral Science: Protecting Participants in Human Subjects Research, addresses the second part of the president’s charge. The Bioethics Commission found that participants in federally-funded research studies were generally protected under current regulations, and recommended 14 changes to current practices to better protect research participants.

The podcast opens with a narrative from Dr. Paul Lombardo, Bobby Lee Cook Professor of Law at Georgia State University. Dr. Lombardo serves as a senior advisor to the Bioethics Commission, and traveled to Guatemala to help conduct this investigation. While recounting this experience, Dr. Lombardo said, “I returned to the United States with a more complete understanding of the meaning of the stories we tell about research ethics, not merely as a parochial academic concern, but within a larger historical frame where ill-treatment of research participants implicate the human rights of all people.”

The podcast also includes an interview with Commission member Dr. Anita Allen, the Henry R. Silverman Professor of Law and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. Hillary Wicai Viers, former Communications Director with the Bioethics Commission staff, conducted the interview. Dr. Allen discussed why the Bioethics Commission conducted a fact-finding investigation, what the investigation entailed, and whether such morally reprehensible research could happen again. Dr. Allen said, “Going deeper into the history…was an important way for us to make sure that we [had] a complete historical picture of what had occurred, and also to increase our chances for understanding what we need to avoid, by way of research practices, moving forward.”

Episode 8 is now available on our website, as well as on our SoundCloud, YouTube and iTunes pages. In addition to this episode, listeners can access the first seven episodes of Ethically Sound. Listeners can follow the podcast using #EthicallySound or by following us on Twitter @bioethicsgov. Stay tuned for the ninth episode in our series, “Bioethics for Every Generation,” which will be available on November 7, 2016. We welcome comments and feedback at

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This is a space for the members and staff of the 2009 -2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to communicate with the public about the work of the commission and to discuss important issues in bioethics.

As of January 15th, 2017 this blog will no longer be updated but continues to be available as an archive of the work of the 2009-2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

Learn more about the 2009 - 2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.