Book Review: Against Their Will

Book Review: Against Their Will

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, 266 pages, $27.00, Reviewed by Christopher Zoukis

According to Oswald Spengler, “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.’” Spengler goes on, adding 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.”[1]

What happens when educated, powerful people withhold sympathy and compassion toward the powerless?  What happens when individuals set aside Spengler’s definition of morality and adopt the Jesuit philosophy that the end justifies the means?  Answer:  despicable events occur, events like those described in the difficult and frightening book by Allen M. Hornblum, Judith L.  Newman, and Gregory J. Dober – Against Their Will.  The 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.  The medical experiments were not performed by psychotic Nazi physicians like Dr. Mengele; they were performed by ruthless, single-minded American doctors of medicine who deluded themselves, believing they were pursuing reality, truth, undeviatingly to the end.  And in their pursuit, they became monsters of the worst sort.

The book begins by providing a succinct summary of eugenics in America 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, those afflicted by cerebral palsy, or simply children who happened to be born into the wrong families 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.  Other children were forcibly castrated, deliberately infected with gonorrhea, or infected with ringworm. Still, other children, like those at the Willowbrook State School located on Staten Island, were infected with hepatitis.  All in the name of science and the greater good of humanity.  None of these children were informed they were participating in medical experiments; none of the children consented to participate.  They participated ‘against their will.’

After being infected, the children were forced to accept experimental treatment for their diseases.  In some instances, no treatment was administered.  The doctors merely wanted to observe and record the course of the disease.  As a result, many of the children died painful 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.  The authors of Against Their Will summarize the political and social conditions that preceded and endorsed such heinous experimentation.  Major government agencies willingly played a part:  the Department of Defense, the Atomic Energy Commission, and the CIA.  Each agency provided funding and objectives for various experiments.

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

Sadly, most Americans are completely unaware of such nefarious experimentation.  Or, if they are aware, they simply shrug it off, saying, “That was then; this is now.”  That kind of thing couldn’t happen in today’s civilized world.  But the events described by the authors cannot and should not be shrugged off.  The despicable events were not just indicative of another time, another milieu.  Indeed, they were the result of a common point of view, a worldview that was pervaded by a concept called the Cold War.  A similar concept presently exists in 21st-century America, that of the War on Terrorism.

Against Their Will is an effective read, persuasive, intense, and compelling.  It shows what happens when mankind leaves behind compassion for those individuals Spengler calls “powerless.”

[1] The Decline of the West, page 322.

(First published by Prison Legal News and used here by permission)