Cold War qualms spawned bioethics

When Nazi war criminals were put on trial in Nuremberg for performing medical experiments on concentration camp prisoners, they pointed in their defense to the United States, where prison inmates had been exposed to mosquitoes to test antimalaria drugs. The Nazi experiments had a military purpose—to gauge the effects of low atmospheric pressure and freezing water on pilots. But there was a moral difference, according to Jonathan D. Moreno, Ph.D., director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Virginia. “Death was not an acceptable outcome in the U.S. experiments,” Moreno said in an April talk titled “Secret State Experiments on Humans” for the Bioethics and Public Policy Seminar Series at Yale. Nevertheless, American officials engaged in questionable practices following World War II. They deliberately released radioactivity into the atmosphere, injected plutonium into people and spiked the drinks of unsuspecting victims with LSD, activities that caused unease among some Pentagon officials. “The prehistory of bioethics is deeply related to activities undertaken during the Cold War, often in secret,” Moreno said.

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