Sexual Abuse in Medical Research: How Can Justice be Served?

Content Warning: The following article discusses sexual abuse.

According to a story from Buzzfeed News, many former patients of an esteemed medical researcher named Reginald Archibald, who was affiliated with the Rockefeller University Hospital, are coming forward with claims that the doctor sexually abused them while he was conducting his studies. Dr. Archibald passed away in 2007, but his survivors are calling for the scientific journals that published his research for decades to take action.

Nearly 150 of the doctor’s former patients are seeking legal counsel in order to attempt to seek justice for sexual abuse that happened decades ago, in the 1960s and 1970s. Many of these patients did not come forward until an article was published in the New York Times last October broke the story and forced Rockefeller to acknowledge the crimes that took place.

There was a time when many parents who were concerned about the growth of their children would go to Dr. Archibald. Much of his research was focused on various rare genetic disorders or other conditions which were linked to inhibited growth, such as gonadal dysgenesis, spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia tarda, and Aarskog-Scott syndrome. Unfortunately, the doctor’s decision to focus on this area of research may have been driven by his desire to sexually exploit teenage boys.

Ethical concerns are a major problem in scientific research. While science and its methods are often depicted as wholly rational, objective pursuits that have no biases and are somehow detached from ethical concerns, the reality is much grimmer. There are unfortunately many prominent cases of scientific research in which participants were unwittingly exposed to dangerous substances or were experimented on without their consent. One harrowing example is a fifty year study of syphilis conducted by the US government in which poor black men were deliberately deprived treatment, leading to needless deaths and undue suffering.

With Dr. Archibald having been dead since 2007, it is impossible to pursue justice in the conventional manner, but many of his former victims are asking for action to be taken on the part of the journals which published his research. Some publications automatically retract studies when ethical violations are discovered. The abuse perpetuated by the doctor, while undeniably inflicting lifelong trauma on the victims, also calls into question the accuracy of his research.

Many survivors just want some acknowledgement that the abuse happened, such as adding additional notations to the research that highlights the incidents of abuse. The situation also illuminates the power that researchers have over their subjects.

In this day and age, there are times in the lives of everyday people where we must put some aspect of our lives into the hands of “experts,” such as when we take our car to get fixed, need our plumbing worked on, or visit the doctor. These transactions require a degree of trust in order to be successful. Unfortunately, it is this realm of trust that also provides the opportunity for exploitation. 

These days, when a child is to be examined by a doctor, a parent or other staff member is always required to be present to minimize the possibility of sexual abuse.

Two academic journals who published Dr. Archibald’s research have agreed to take action to acknowledge what happened and leave warnings indicating the fact that the abuse occurred. While this will satisfy the wishes of some of the survivors, it is impossible to undo the harm that happened all those years ago.

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