chapter  9
Biology as opportunity: Hybrid rule from a molecular point of view
Pages 18

Between 1932 and 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service conducted a medical experiment on human beings, one that was, in many respects, little different from those experiments inflicted by Nazis on concentration camp inmates (Mellanby 1947). In the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, a group of poor, rural black men with syphilis were denied treatment in exchange for free medical care, meals and burial insurance from the U.S. government so that the natural course of the infection could be studied.2 What had been deemed a war crime during World War Two was found to be perfectly legal under U.S. law, with any “inventions” resulting from the experiment being the “sole property of the United States” (Roy 1995: 65). Moreover, as part of the Clinical Cooperative Study under the League of Nations, the Tuskegee study was deemed an “international agreement” which, according to a 1920 Supreme Court decision (Missouri v Holland 252 US 416), put it under the executive authority of the United States rather than the U.S. constitution, thus putting it beyond the reach of constitutional questions or interpretation. While Tuskegee was certainly not the first example of public-private hybridization, for its time it was exceptional. According to Benjamin Roy, and contrary to arguments made by the study’s proponents, the central issue at stake in the experiments was not scientific understanding but property in the body (1995). Claiming that the Public Health Service (PHS) engaged in “clinical subterfuge” to obscure its political objectives, Roy maintains that the Tuskegee Syphilis Study had to do with “the economic exploitation of humans as a natural resource of a disease that could not be cultivated in culture or animals in order to establish and sustain American superiority in patented commercial biotechnology” (1995: 56). More to the point, he argues that, once removed from the body, tissue and body fluids ceased to be considered the property of the Tuskegee subjects, and instead became the property of the PHS.