Dr. Dianne Irving on Human Experimentation part-1

March 12, 2012 09:00 AM

Part 1

As a biochemistry major at the end of my junior year, I had already had some of my research published earlier, so my department head suggested that I could do something “different” for my senior thesis if I wanted—like medical ethics (bioethics didn’t exist yet!). I thought about it, and remembered being touched by a small book we had read in a junior year Chemistry Conference Course—courses each student was required to take in their major for their last two years in order to integrate their own special fields or “concentrations” with the other areas of knowledge. Junior year’s course usually took the students through their academic field’s long historical development, and in chemistry we had read a small book by J. Bronowski, a philosopher/scientist/journalist who wrote during and after World War II, especially about the Nazi medical experiments used to achieve eugenics which soon became the focus of the Nuremberg Trials.

Bronowski recalls the time when the bombs had just been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He found himself on a small ferry filled with military personnel who were assigned to observe, study and report the immediate consequences of these bombings as the ferry drifted closely along the Japanese shoreline. He tries to describe the devastation but has profound difficulty finding words that could describe the horrific scene drifting surreally before them. He recalls the strange, piercing, and awkward silence on the ferry stuffed with so many “observers” —all but one sound. From the metal megaphones fixed in the ceilings of the ferry drifted the haunting music of one of the popular tunes of the day, and he was struck by how it captured so perfectly what he was finding so difficult to articulate. The name of the song was, “Is you is, or is you ain’t my baby?” and as a philosopher of science it had haunted him ever since. The devastation that lay before them had a signature. And his words had made me stop and ponder about any moral obligations and moral accountability I might have as a brand new research scientist myself. What exactly had taken place in those Nazi medical experiments with human subjects? How could such brilliant scientists and physicians have conceived and carried out such abominable crimes against humanity in the name of “science” and “the greater good”? “Well, they were just ‘untermenchen’ and going to die anyway; might as well get some good out of them!” And given that the first moral obligation of a researcher is that the science being performed on human subjects is as accurate as possible, and performed only by those academically credentialed and qualified [Nuremberg Code], just how did the Nazi human medical experiments measure up to even that initial but critical international moral standard? I would do my senior thesis on the Nazi medical war crimes—even though the war seemed so long ago! (This was 1963.) It was difficult for me to narrow my topic for my thesis, and my department head kept forcing me to get more and more selective. For a year and a half I haunted the halls of the Library of Congress, my desk constantly piled high with books, manuscripts, films, etc. Indeed, they were still finding such documents and items almost on a weekly basis, and often the clerk would simply bring me a wicker basket stuffed with the latest items. For months at a time I even watched the hundreds of raw film footage of the Nazi concentration camps that was pouring into the Archives—although I always had to stop at times, because I simply couldn’t take it anymore. At such times I would just shut down my desk, grab my coat, and get out of there—arriving back at school with one huge Excedrin headache.

One of those items they brought me in a wicker basket one day was the actual lab book that belonged to Dr. Mengele, along with piles of random photographs taken in his lab of his “patients” during his experiments. (For some odd reason it is claimed today that no such lab book exists; but it did, as I held it in my hands several times.) One set of twin experiments attracted my attention—those performed on about three-year-old blonde hair, blue eyed Eastern European Gypsy twins. One twin would be held as the “control” of the experiment; the other twin was subjected to serial experiments, designed to mimic wounds of Nazi soldiers in the battle fields. The twins were kept in cages right in Mengele’s laboratory, just off his office. The cages measured 1 ½ by 1 ½ by 1 ½ meters. During the mornings Mengele would come into the lab to visit with his “girls”; such times he was always dressed impeccably in his suit. He would take the girls out of their cages and bounce them on his knees, asking them to call him “Papa.” But in the afternoons he would come back to the lab wearing his starched white lab coat, and the girls knew then that it was time for more experimenting. He would take one of the twins into a small narrow closet-like space, where he would take a knife and remove more and more of her femur bone in one leg—and then observe. No anesthetic, no pain killers, no antibiotics, no ice, no bandages, no nothing—thus resembling the conditions of the battlefield. After he finished cutting the twin’s leg bone, he would simply carry her over to a “stretcher” and let her remain there until she was ready to be placed back into her cage with her sister. The photos of the tiny suffering little girl in that dense and dark “recovery” room, so butchered, and bloody and pathetic, would be etched into my memory for a long, long time—a memory that I would carry with me into the rest of my work to come.

After finally graduating, I worked at the bench at NIH (NCI), doing research in radiation biology and in viral oncology, and eventually given a career appointment as a research biochemist/biologist. But I left NIH after seven years to study the brand new field of “bioethics” —mostly because of the many ethical issues I “experienced” at NIH as a bench researcher, especially seeing the patients there to whom our research was being applied—sometimes ethically, sometimes not so ethically. So I became a member of the First Generationers—the first graduate class to go through the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University. This was 1979, one year after the publication of The Belmont Report of the National Commission—fulfilling their  Congressional mandate to “identify the ethical principles that the United States government should use in dealing with issues concerning the use of human subjects in experimental and therapeutic research” (National Research Act 1974)! This was the formal “birth of bioethics,” and the “new ethics” would be grounded in the new Belmont bioethics principles of autonomy, justice, and beneficence (all quite oddly defined). We First Generationers had no clue.

I won’t go into how utterly un-Catholic, much less unscholarly, we all found this new “bioethics” to be; long, brutal, ugly battles, dirty tricks, and deceptions. All of us graduate students knew that there was something VERY wrong with that “bioethics” picture. But I finally got to the point where I was required to submit my proposal for my doctoral dissertation to the Graduate Dean. At first I was going to do it on the use of human subjects in research; too broad. Since the real uncharted territory was the use of “Group Twos” in research (i.e., human subjects who were particularly vulnerable and thus needed stricter legal and ethical governmental protections), I finally narrowed it down to the MOST vulnerable research subjects (i.e., the use of living human fetuses in experimental research—an ongoing scandal in the research community at the time). I ordered and studied all of the current international guidelines on fetal research; too broad. How could I get this topic narrow enough for the graduate dean?

Perhaps I should do it on human embryo research—a then-uncontroversial issue that was just beginning to get noticed in Australia. I started compiling the bioethics literature on human embryo research that had already started moving into our U.S. bioethics literature. Still worried that this too was too broad a topic, I immersed myself into these articles to identify an even narrower issue. It was about three o’clock in the morning; I was blurry-eyed, when I finally came to the journal writer’s conclusion after a very long, contorted and flimsy argument as to why “surplus” IVF human embryos could be “ethically” used in destructive experimental research—for “the advancement of science” and for “the greater good.” His final statement nearly made me leap out of the couch—“Well, they are going to die anyway, so we might as well get some good out of them”! Good God! Where had I heard THAT before!? Years earlier. No, I just couldn’t bear to go there again, too complicated; somebody else would have to do it. NOT ME! I slammed the journal closed and shot up to bed to get a few hours of sleep before I had to catch a plane the next day for Minnesota.

Read part two of Dr. Irving's guest commentary.

Dr. Dianne Irving is a graduate of Dunbarton College of the Holy Cross with a degree in biochemistry and minors in philosophy and theology. She is a former career-appointed bench research biochemist and biologist at the National Institutes of Health (NCI), has done extensive graduate work in biology in the Department of Biology at Georgetown University (Washington, D.C.), and received her master’s and doctorate degrees in philosophy from the Department of Philosophy at Georgetown University—concentrating in both the history of philosophy and in bioethics (Kennedy Institute of Ethics). Her doctoral dissertation on human embryo research was entitled “A Philosophical and Scientific Analysis of the Nature of the Early Human Embryo.” Dr. Irving has published, lectured, and debated widely in academia, in the media, in pro-life, and in parishes on the topics of abortion, human embryo research, human cloning, stem cell research, genetic engineering, ethics in research using human subjects, and medical ethics—including issues concerning research with the mentally ill, and served as a consultant on these issues for many professional organizations. 

This article has been reprinted with permission and can be found at http://www.humanlifematters.org/2012/02/dr.html.

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