Fits into dubious history of medical coercion and experimentation on vulnerable populations in the U.S.
Two Democratic members of the Massachusetts state legislature have proposed a bill that would give state prisoners between 60 and 365 days off their sentences if they donate a kidney, bone marrow, skin, or “other organs” to people in the general population who have a need for those organs.
A statement by the bill’s sponsors, Reps. Judith Garcia and Carlos Gonzalez, says that the “act to establish the Massachusetts incarcerated individual bone marrow and organ donation program…would restore bodily autonomy to incarcerated folks.”
That nonsensical statement did not address the fact that both the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the federal government have a sick history of medical coercion and experimentation on vulnerable people. And those vulnerable people are usually people of color. It also did not address the fact that the bill is likely illegal in the first place.
Advocates for the incarcerated, as well as medical ethicists, were quick to condemn the bill. Project Turnaround founder Romilda Pereira told the Boston Globe that the idea behind the bill was akin to organ harvesting. An epidemiologist for Brigham & Women’s Hospital called the entire idea “perverse.”
The Federal Bureau of Prisons has long allowed prisoners to donate organs to immediate family members only.
The state of Utah allows the families of deceased prisoners to donate their organs. But that’s the extent of prison organ donation programs nationwide. No other state allows organ donations for any reason. The nonprofit Ethics Committee of the United Network for Organ Sharing issued a statement in response to the bill saying, “Any law or proposal that allows a person to trade an organ for a reduced sentence raises numerous ethical issues.”
The fact that the bill would create a five-person panel, only one member of which would be a prisoner’s rights advocate, to determine how much time the prisoner gets off for his donation makes the entire plan smell worse.
Indeed, the whole idea is deeply disturbing. But it’s not at all new.
In 1942, Harvard Medical School Professor Edwin Cohn injected 64 Massachusetts state prisoners with cows’ blood to see how they would tolerate it in an experiment for the U.S. Navy. The results were catastrophic. All of the prisoners became ill and six died.
Between 1937 and 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service took advantage of hundreds of unwitting African-American men who, in exchange for free “medical care,” food, and a burial service, were injected with syphilis to treat their “bad blood.” None of the participants were told that they had syphilis, nor were they ever given penicillin, which had already been proven to cure the disease.
There are a number of these examples from throughout American history. But perhaps the worst offender has been the CIA. Just a quick sampling shows that the CIA has experimented on unwitting Americans and others over the course of decades.
- MK-ULTRA is probably the best-known example of government experimentation on unwitting individuals. The official explanation to Congress of the purpose of MK-ULTRA was the development of drugs to aid in interrogations. But it wasn’t quite that simple. Under MKULTRA, the CIA experimented on unwitting Americans, including their own employees. Investigators for the Church Committee concluded that MKULTRA “aimed to develop mind-controlling drugs for use against the Soviet bloc” and “to produce a perfect truth drug for interrogating suspected Soviet spies and to explore other possibilities of mind control.”
- A similar operation, dubbed MKOFTEN, started off as a study on dopamine before morphing into something far more sinister. By the end of the “study,” it had expanded to include the hallucinogen ibogaine and to LSD in the hopes of “creating a new pharmacologically active drug affecting the central nervous system to modify men’s behavior.” Thousands of active duty US servicemen were unwittingly dosed during this operation.
- Operation Midnight Climax was a program in the 1960s and 1970s, carried out in CIA safehouses in San Francisco, to dose non-consenting individuals—mostly homeless men and prostitutes—with LSD and other drugs, monitor them from behind one-way glass, and determine if they would voluntarily reveal secrets. The prostitutes eventually were also taught to dose their clients and were then debriefed as to whether or not the johns had revealed any personal secrets.
- The CIA’s very first foray into drug experimentation was Project CHATTER, in which both animals and humans were dosed with the drugs anabasine (a product of the tobacco plant, it is chemically similar to nicotine,) scopolamine (a drug used to treat motion sickness and post-operative nausea,) and mescaline (a hallucinogen similar to LSD and psilocybin) to see what the effects might be. The operation ended in 1953.
The obvious question for the Democrats who have sponsored the Massachusetts bill is, “Have you learned nothing from history?” I would add, “Have you no decency?
Gonzalez, one of the bill’s authors and chairman of the state Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security, which has jurisdiction over the state Department of Corrections, told a local television station, “I’ve put more effort into this bill after visiting a friend, who I consider a brother, in the hospital who is required to have dialysis three to four times a week while he awaits a kidney transplant. He’s the father of three children and he is in stage 4 of kidney failure. I love my friend and I’m praying through this legislation that we can extend the chances of life.”
But who’s life? Do you coerce an incarcerated person who is poor, disadvantaged, and probably a person of color into giving a literal piece of his body, jeopardizing his own health, in an immoral and unethical manner because you feel sorry for your friend?
My educated guess is that this program is not about “giving bodily autonomy to incarcerated folks” or about providing a “path for organ or bone marrow donation for incarcerated folks in Massachusetts,” as Garcia, the other author, tweeted.
Instead, I think the truth was spoken by a medical researcher in 1973 in a private talk with Jessica Mitford, author of the book Kind and Usual Punishment. That researcher said, “Prisoners are fine experimental material…and much cheaper than chimpanzees.” That’s the bottom line.
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About the Author
John Kiriakou was a CIA analyst and case officer from 1990 to 2004.
In December 2007, John was the first U.S. government official to confirm that waterboarding was used to interrogate al-Qaeda prisoners, a practice he described as torture.
Kiriakou was a former senior investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a former counter-terrorism consultant. While employed with the CIA, he was involved in critical counter-terrorism missions following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, but refused to be trained in so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” nor did he ever authorize or engage in such crimes.
After leaving the CIA, Kiriakou appeared on ABC News in an interview with Brian Ross, during which he became the first former CIA officer to confirm the existence of the CIA’s torture program. Kiriakou’s interview revealed that this practice was not just the result of a few rogue agents, but was official U.S. policy approved at the highest levels of the government.
Kiriakou is the sole CIA agent to go to jail in connection with the U.S. torture program, despite the fact that he never tortured anyone. Rather, he blew the whistle on this horrific wrongdoing.
John can be reached at: email@example.com.