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Book Review: Against Their Will: The Secret History of Medical Experimentation on Children in Cold War America

by Allen M. Hornblum, Judith L. Newman
and Gregory J. Dober

(Palgrave MacMillan, 2013). 266 pages. $27.00

Book review by Christopher Zoukis

According to Oswald Spengler, writing in The Decline of the West, “Moral is a conscious and planned causality of conduct, apart from all particulars of actual life and character, something eternal and universally valid, not only without time but hostile to time and for that very reason ‘true.’” He adds that “Every moral action is a piece of this sacrifice, and an ethical life-course is an unbroken chain of such sacrifices. Above all, the offering of sympathy, compassion, in which the inwardly strong gives up his superiority to the powerless.”

What happens when educated, powerful people withhold sympathy and compassion from those without power? What happens when individuals set aside Spengler’s definition of morality and adopt a philosophy that the end justifies the means? Answer: despicable events occur, events like those described in Against Their Will – a difficult and frankly frightening book by Allen M. Hornblum, who has written extensively on medical experimentation on prisoners, Judith L. Newman and occasional PLN writer Gregory J. Dober.

This book is difficult to read not because it’s dry and overly literary, but rather because it’s emotionally grueling. And it’s frightening because it demonstrates the ethical sinkhole into which humans can descend.

Against Their Will relates a true story, the story of children exploited as subjects in medical experiments. These experiments were not performed by Nazi physicians like Dr. Mengele; rather, they were conducted by ruthless, single-minded American doctors who deluded themselves into believing they were pursuing the greater good. And in their pursuit, they became monsters of the worst sort.

The book begins by providing a succinct summary of eugenics in the United States during the 19th and 20th centuries. Essentially, eugenicists looked down their collective noses at the disabled, the handicapped and persons marginalized by society as second-rate and inferior. Eugenics offered a convenient pretext for doing the unthinkable.

Many of the so-called inferior were children: orphans, those born with Downs Syndrome or afflicted by cerebral palsy, or simply children who happened to be born into the wrong family at the wrong time. Schizophrenic and autistic children were subjected to repeated sessions of electro-shock therapy or given twice-daily doses of LSD. Children at the Wrentham State School were injected with radioactive isotopes. Others were forcibly castrated, or deliberately infected with gonorrhea or ringworm. Still other children, like those at the Willowbrook State School in Staten Island, New York, were infected with hepatitis. All of these monstrous acts were done in the name of science and for the greater good of humanity. The children were not informed that they were participating in medical experiments; none had consented to do so. They participated “against their will.”

Children who were infected with diseases were forced to take part in experimental treatments. In some cases, no treatment was provided; the doctors merely wanted to observe and record the course of the disease. As a result, many of the children died painful and preventable deaths. They were buried in paupers’ graves.

The justification for this experimentation was the Cold War. National security was at stake; communism lurked in the shadows, ready to pounce on those who eschewed constant vigilance, and the results of the experiments could be useful for national security purposes.

The authors of Against Their Will summarize the political and social contexts that preceded and endorsed such heinous experimentation on children. Several government agencies willingly played a part: the Department of Defense, the Atomic Energy Commission and the CIA. Each provided funding and objectives for various medical studies.

In one of the more unnerving portions of the book, the authors document medical experiments on children as recently as the 1990s. And if that’s not enough, they emphatically state that such experimentation continues. Now, though, the studies have been outsourced, moved off-shore, like so many jobs.

Sadly, most Americans are completely unaware of such heinous experiments. Or, if they are aware, they simply shrug them off, saying, “That was then; this is now. That kind of thing couldn’t happen in today’s civilized world.” But the events described in Against Their Will cannot and should not be shrugged off. They were not just indicative of another time, another milieu. They were the result of a common point of view – a world view pervaded by the Cold War, which provided convenient justification for committing the most immoral acts on the most vulnerable people. A parallel view exists today, seen through the lens of the War on Terror.

Against Their Will is an effective read – persuasive, intense and compelling. It shows what happens when mankind withholds morality and compassion from those people whom Spengler calls “powerless.”

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