Clinton Regrets 'Clearly Racist' U.S. Study

The New York Times | May 17, 1997
By Alison Mitchell

A quarter of a century after the infamous Tuskegee experiment came to an end, President Clinton, his voice cracking with emotion, apologized today to the few remaining survivors and to relatives of 399 black men who for 40 years were left untreated for syphilis as part of the Federal Government's study.

''What was done cannot be undone, but we can end the silence,'' Mr. Clinton said in the White House East Room. ''We can stop turning our heads away. We can look at you in the eye and finally say on the behalf of the American people: What the United States did was shameful, and I am sorry.''

At one point as he spoke, the President extended his arms from his lectern toward the frail, elderly victims of the study -- one of them more than 100 years old -- men who he said had been ''betrayed'' by their Government.

The United States Public Health Service's ''Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male'' represents an infamous chapter in the annals of American medical research. Starting in 1932, 399 indigent Southern black men were recruited by health researchers who led them to believe they would receive free medical treatment for what they called ''bad blood,'' and were carefully monitored as the disease claimed its victims.

The men were not told they had syphilis, which can cause mental illness and death. And they were never treated for the disease, even after penicillin was found to be a successful cure in the mid-1940's.

Tuskegee, a historically black college in Alabama, did not participate in the syphilis study. The program was ended when it was publicly exposed in 1972, and only then were its survivors treated for syphilis.

Some of those sitting in the audience began to cry as Mr. Clinton spoke, and he, too, shed a tear. And a low murmur swept the room as the President said, ''To our African-American citizens, I am sorry that your Federal Government orchestrated a study so clearly racist.''

Before Mr. Clinton's apology, military escorts led five of the eight survivors of the study -- several of them in wheelchairs and all over 90 -- into the room. One of the men, Herman Shaw, introduced the President and said the day closed ''this very tragic and painful chapter in our lives.''

''We were treated unfairly,'' said Mr. Shaw, who will turn 95 on Sunday and was helped to the lectern by Mr. Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. ''To some extent like guinea pigs.''

''We were not pigs, Mr. Shaw continued, his voice slow and steady. ''We were all hard-working men, not boys, and citizens of the United States.''

When he had finished speaking, he and the President embraced.

Since 1973 the Government, in an out-of-court settlement to a class action suit, has paid $10 million in compensation to the Tuskegee experiment's victims and heirs, but the nation's leaders had never formally apologized to the victims.

White House officials said that in the next few months the President plans to concentrate on race relations in the nation. Today he called the victims and their relatives ''a living link to a time not so long ago that many Americans do not like to remember but we dare not forget.''

The Government, he said, ''did something that was wrong -- deeply, profoundly, morally wrong. It was an outrage to our commitment to integrity and equality for all our citizens.''

Mr. Clinton said the legacy of the experiment ''has reached far and deep, in ways that hurt our progress and divide our nation,'' and added, ''We cannot be one America when a whole segment of our nation has no trust in America.''

For a moment his voice broke as he thanked the victims and their families for the fact that they had ''not withheld the power to forgive.''

Mr. Clinton announced a $200,000 planning grant to allow Tuskegee University to help establish a Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care. He also announced the creation of fellowships for post-graduate studies in bioethics, with a special effort to recruit minority students.

In addition, he extended the life of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission until 1999, and directed Donna Shalala, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, to report within 180 days on how to best involve communities -- particularly minority communities -- in research and health care. Doctors and medical researchers have said that the Tuskegee study left such a legacy of Government distrust among black Americans that it has hindered their ability to treat blacks for AIDS or H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS.

For those who have long sought recognition of the pain inflicted on their families, Mr. Clinton's apology offered some solace. Albert Julkes Jr. of Columbus, Ga., whose father and two uncles had been subjects of the experiment, was left in tears. ''I wish my father was here,'' said Mr. Julkes, whose father is dead. ''He would have appreciated this.''

Dr. Vanessa Northington Gamble, chairwoman of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study Legacy Committee, a group formed last year to press for an apology, called the President's remarks moving but said that a $200,000 planning grant for Tuskegee University should be ''just a beginning.''

''It's not enough,'' she said. ''It's not sufficient.''

Dr. Randall Morgan, the president of the National Medical Association, the nation's oldest black professional medical association, said in a statement that Mr. Clinton's apology did not excuse the tragedy of the Tuskegee study, ''but it may help close this unfortunate chapter in our nation's history.''