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Garcia, et al. v. Sebelius, et al.

Case Status: 


Guatemalan orphans, schoolchildren, prisoners, asylum and leprosy patients, soldiers and others who were subjected to non-consensual human medical experimentation by the U.S. Public Health Service and the Pan American Health Organization in the late 1940s filed claims under the ATS and U.S. Constitution.

Factual Background:

Beginning in 1946, medical researchers from the United States Public Health Service (PHS) subjected over 5,000 Guatemalans to medical experimentation.  In the course of those experiments the researchers deliberately infected over 1,000 people with venereal diseases without the subjects’ knowledge or consent.  The victims of these experiments struggled with serious health problems for decades, unaware that their suffering was the result of intentional transmission sanctioned and funded by the United States government.

The Guatemala experiment was the culmination of a series of highly unethical studies into venereal disease conducted by the PHS. It began in 1946, the same year that sixteen German doctors prepared to stand trial in Nuremburg for gruesome experiments performed in concentration camps throughout Nazi-occupied territory.  As worldwide focus on medical ethics increased, the PHS chose Guatemala specifically to avoid compliance with moral standards regarding human testing. The U.S. government funded experimentation on orphans, schoolchildren, the mentally ill, prisoners, soldiers and others, which lasted for at least seven years.  The experiments were kept hidden from the victims and the world at large until the fall of 2010, when medical researcher Susan Reverby discovered documentation of the experiments in the course of reviewing materials from the infamous Tuskegee, Alabama research.

In October 2010, President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, and Secretary of Health & Human Services Sebelius issued an apology to the Guatemalan people and acknowledged that these experiments were clearly unethical and non-consensual.  In September 2011, in response to a charge from President Obama, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues issued a thorough and credible report that left no doubt that high-level U.S. health authorities designed and oversaw the use and intentional inoculation of innocent people, whom the authorities knew had not consented to participate in the experiments. 

To date, the subjects of these experiments have been offered no compensation or other recourse for the devastating consequences of their exposure.

Legal Proceedings:

In March 2011, IRAdvocates and Conrad & Scherer LLP, filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of all Guatemalans who were used in the non-consensual human medical experiments and their family members, including those who contracted the disease as a result.  The class brings claims against U.S. health officials and the Pan-American Health Organization for conducting medical experimentation on non-consenting human subjects and practicing cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of the law of nations under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) and in violation of the U.S. Constitution.  (The current officials are successor office-holders to the individuals responsible for the experiment and thus are liable for the misdeeds of their predecessors.)

These claims are based on the fundamental principle that non-consensual human medical experimentation is an affront to basic rights to life, health and personal integrity, and proscribed by international law, including in the Nuremburg Code, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine, and the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights. Guidelines put forth by the World Medical Association and the Council for International Organizations of Medical Services expressly prohibit the practice, as does the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The ICCPR proscribes the use of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. The 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution similarly bans cruel and unusual forms of punishment while the deprivation of life and liberty that the plaintiffs suffered is prohibited by the 5th Amendment.

Despite admitting the atrocity and the ethical impropriety of the Guatemala experiment, all of the Defendants asserted sovereign immunity in their motions to dismiss.  In June 2012 the D.C. District Court granted all of the Defendants’ motions and dismissed the case.  Plaintiffs are now reviewing a public appeal for President Obama to make good on his Administration's promise to do the right thing and provide compensation for the admitted atrocity committed by the U.S. government. 

How You Can Help:

Write or call Attorney General Eric Holder, President Barack Obama, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, and Secretary of State John Kerry to insist that the United States provide fair and just compensation to the victims of the Guatemala experiments.

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500
Phone: 202-456-1111
To send an online message:


Cooperating Attorneys:

  • Conrad & Scherer LLP, Ft. Lauderdale/Washington, DC
  • Rudy Zuñiga, Guatemala City, Guatemala