Chapter  7: Human Experimentation

Section 4. Reading

Title: Judging the Past: The Case of the Human Radiation Experiments

Author: Allen Buchanan

Publication Information: Hastings Center Report, Vol. 26, no.3 (1996):25-30  


Allen Buchanan disapproves the reasons that people often give about not
judging the past actions of individuals or organizations. Such reasons
are cultural ethical relativism, culturally induced ignorance, and
informed consent by the victims. Buchanan looks at the human radiation
experiments of late 1940s and early 1950s and believes that it was
unethical then and it is unethical today. Clinton Administration formed
a committee, which also found that the sponsors of these radiation
experiments could not justify the “national security exception”, the
reason they used for conducting these experiments. Buchanan, in her
article “Judging the Past”, stresses that we can and we should make
retrospective moral judgments that can also deter future wrong doings.
The judgment remains valid despite the passage of time.  

The cultural relativism speculates that retrospective moral judgment is
invalid if we apply it across different cultures. It makes us believe
that as long as someone is not doing wrong in the context of his or own
cultural norms, it is right. In other words, we cannot apply our ethical
standards to other cultures that do not share our “values”. Buchanan
says that we should be entitled to human rights “simply by virtue of our
humanity”.  It does not matter which culture we belong to and when and
where we live. Buchanan takes the example of Bosnia, where Bosnian Serbs
allegedly killed Muslim prisoners. She points out that in this case, we
do not question whether the cultural values of Bosnian Serbs condemn
such killings or not. Most of us simply believe that such killings were
wrong and violations of human rights of those killed. Hence, the fact
about human rights being free of any cultural associations invalidates
the position that cultural relativism presents about retrospective moral

Buchanan writes that the human radiation experiments that took place at
Fernando School violated the human rights of the physically challenged
and powerless children. The sponsors of these radiation experiments
violated the very basic and general moral principles. They deceived and
exploited the most vulnerable lot. They harmed them without their
consent. The “national security exception” was just a mean to avoid
legal liability and public outrage. Buchanan stresses that even if the
“national security exception” were true, it is too little to let this
cultural difference “provide a valid excuse” for those who approved and
conducted those experiments.  Sometimes, we see Culturally Induced
Ignorance as a factor invalidating the retrospective judgments. Given
the technology and knowledge of physicians in 1940s and 50s who
performed the radiation experiments, they might have believed that there
was a minimal risk on the subjects from such experiments. Considering
this culturally induced ignorance of relevance facts, we might conclude
that their “ignorance was not culpable”.  However, Buchanan points out
the committee that investigated these radiation experiments did not find
any factual error - culturally induced or otherwise. In human radiation
experiments conducted at the University of Rochester and University of
California, subjects received plutonium injections. Even if the physical
risk from these injections was minimum, Buchanan stresses that they
treated the subjects wrongly nevertheless and there was not any
therapeutic benefit from these experiments. She finds the physicians
blameworthy for conducting experiments without any benefit to the

 One “plausible” argument that goes in favor of those who conducted the
radiation experiments is that the informed consent was not an accepted
standard in those days. Today’s informed consent laws and principles are
different and complex from 50 years ago. We may not be able to judge the
conducts of the physicians from the past with today’s laws and
principles of informed consents. Buchanan, however, finds bare consent
sought in all cases of radiation experiments that she studied. She hence
argues that an accepted standard for consent becomes irrelevant. In the
conclusion, Buchanan warns us that we should not fall into the trap of
thinking that suggests that we should rather focus on the future
prevention of such wrong doings than judging the past wrong doings. She
finds these two things interrelated and argues that effective prevention
action must include the accountability of all acting individuals so
people do not go blameless under the cover of institutions. If people
know that they will be judged of their past, present, and future
actions, they will act more responsibly.
Summary: Hita Gurung (QCC,2003)

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