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"Carte Blanche": The Lethal Human Toll of Unethical Medical Research

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Columbia Global Reports
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Harriet A. Washington is an award-winning author and medical ethicist, and an adjunct professor of bioethics at Columbia University Medical School.

In her new book, ethicist Harriet A. Washington shows how years of unethical medical research has eroded Black communities' faith in public health institutions.

(This conversation was originally broadcast on February 24, 2021)

At the outset of the Coronavirus pandemic, it was widely assumed that African Americans and LatinX people were more reluctant to get the COVID 19 vaccine than White people. Since then, it is now apparent that while access to the vaccine is different for African Americans, rates of hesitancy between races is about the same. In fact, data shows that Republican men, most of whom are white, are more likely to be unwilling to receive the vaccine than Black people.

The narrative about vaccine hesitancy among people in communities of color grew out of distrust of medical research that is premised on the experience in two famous cases: one is Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman who died of cancer in the 1950s, and whose extraordinary cells were harvested for research by doctors at Johns Hopkins without her consent. Those cells are still used for research today. The second is the case of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which men who were infected with the disease were left untreated.

The unethical and deadly behavior of researchers in the Tuskegee Study was revealed in 1972. And for more than a decade, Johns Hopkins has honored the legacy of Henrietta Lacks, and used her story to study its implications for informed consent in medicine.

Informed consent is the focus on this archive edition of Midday.

Tom's guest is the award-winning author and medical ethicist, Harriet A. Washington.

In her latest book, Washington states, flatly, that “We have frequently abandoned informed consent and today remain guilty of burgeoning medical experimentation without consent of any type.” She goes on to say that “Informed consent, or even simple consent, have been withheld consistently in research with African Americans.”

Her book is called Carte Blanche: The Erosion of Medical Consent. Harriet Washington joined us in February, on Zoom.

Host, Midday (M-F 12:00-1:00)
Rob is Midday's senior producer.