Medical Ethics in 20th-Century Latin America: Human Subject Experimentation, Forced Sterilization, and Cold War Torture

AHA Session 125
Conference on Latin American History 22
Friday, January 8, 2016: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Room M301 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Marquis Level)
Raquel Padilla Ramos, Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Sonora
Ann Zulawski, Smith College

Session Abstract

The historiography of medicine and public health in twentieth-century Latin America has developed greatly during the last fifteen years, illuminating the influence of nationalism, racial doctrines and gendered ideologies on medical research and practice. Various studies have revealed histories in which health experts violated medical ethics. Some have focused on marginalized groups—in particular women, indigenous peoples, and afro-latinos—as victims of international and U.S.-designed medical experiments and coercive public-health campaigns. Others examine scientific institutions and government agencies that committed or oversaw ethical breaches. Yet little is known about the historical circumstances that motivated physicians to either disregard, or eagerly defend, their Hippocratic Oath.

This panel seeks to expand the historiographical conversation on medical ethics in twentieth-century Latin America, particularly in regard to scientific experimentation and clinical procedures. Placing medical ethics at the center of our analytical framework, the presentations explore various historical episodes in which Latin American medical professionals as well as institutions debated, contested, and violated the profession’s ethical standards. We also aim to understand how patients understood medical ethics, and in which historical junctions they resisted abuses of medical power. Four geographically and chronologically diverse case studies—in Mexico (1900-1910 and 1920s-1930s), Guatemala (1940s-1950s), and Brazil (1960s-1980s)—analyze how population dislocation, gendered convictions, revolutionary ideologies, and regime change influenced the ways in which scientific organizations and practitioners approached medical procedures. The displacement of indigenous Yaquis in the first decade of the twentieth century enabled Mexican doctors to conduct experimental treatments on Indians who contracted yellow fever. In post-revolutionary Mexico, physicians and medical students clashed over the practice and ethics of sterilization surgeries. During Guatemala’s Ten Years of Spring, while the country experimented with dramatic social, economic, and political changes, U.S. health professionals not only infected human subjects with sexually transmitted diseases, but also contested conceptualizations of ‘blood’ with the local population. Finally, in Brazil, where the military seized power to instate a long-term authoritarian rule, politicized doctors divided on the nature of their sector’s relationship with the regime’s repressive institutions.

The presentations draw on traditional sources such as scientific journals, professional publications, and legal records. Yet they also utilize oral histories and patient demographic data in order to push past discursive histories and scrutinize the ground-level experiences of doctor and patient interactions before, during, and after disputes over medical ethics.

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