Undue Risk Secret State Experiments on Humans

In 1994, Jonathan Moreno became a senior staff member of a special commission created by President Clinton to investigate allegations of government-sponsored radiation research on unknowing citizens during the cold war. The top secret documents he helped to declassify revealed a shocking truth– that human experimentation played an extensive role in this country’s attempts to build and protect against weapons of mass destruction.

In Undue Risk, Moreno presents the first comprehensive history of the use of human subjects in atomic, biological, and chemical warfare experiments from World War II to the twenty-first century. From the courtrooms of Nuremberg to the battlefields of the Gulf War, Undue Risk explores a variety of government policies and specific cases, including plutonium injections into unwitting hospital patients, U.S. government attempts to recruit Nazi medical scientists, the subjection of soldiers to atomic blast fallout, secret LSD and mescaline studies, and the feeding of irradiated oatmeal to children. It is also the first book to go behind the scenes and reveal the government’s struggle with the ethics of human experimentation and the evolution of agonizing policy choices on unfamiliar moral terrain.

As the threat of foreign and domestic terrorist attack continues to grow, the need for our country to defend itself against insidious weapons is greater than ever. Can a democracy justify using humans in potentially risky experiments in order to answer scientific questions vital to national security? Exploring the possibilities, Undue Risk highlights a program of human experimentation that is a moral model for all others, civilian and military.

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Praise for Undue Risk

“No informed citizen can afford to ignore Undue Risk.”–Arthur Caplan, Director, Center for Bioethics, University of Pennsylvania

“From the horrific Nazi experiments of the concentration camps to the egregious efforts in the United States to research radiation and biological warfare, Jonathan Moreno presents a compelling historical narrative of how the claims of military science have often warped the ethics of human experimentation. Undue Risk is a powerful and human call for moral vigilance as we face complex issues of medical research in the present and future.”–Allan M. Brandt, Kass Professor of the History of Medicine, Harvard University

“Moreno has accomplished something rare in Undue Risk. Its value lies not only in the care with which he has dug deep into primary sources to add significant details to familiar events– such as the Nuremberg trials– but in the way it reveals to scholars, politicians, and the public the role that bioethical thought may play in the future construction of domestic and foreign policy.”–Eric M. Meslin, Ph.D., Executive Director, National Bioethics Advisory Commission

“Jonathan Moreno has written a thoughtful, balanced, and much needed account of the different forces that in recent decades have caused various saints and devils to overlook or set aside the moral status of persons recruited (voluntarily or involuntarily) into medical experiments. Undue Risk should be mandatory reading for all those concerned with not only the protection of human subjects but the appropriate moral underpinnings of government action in a liberal democracy.”–Harold T. Shapiro, President, Princeton University; Chairman, National Bioethics Advisory Commission


The New York Times Book Review, Daniel J. Kevles
…the historical record he presents in Undue Risk strongly supports his contention that the rights of human subjects deserve to be held paramount over any needs of national security.

From Kirkus Reviews
A thoughtful look into the unfortunate penchant of 20th-century governments to test deadly weapons on their own citizens. In 1994, Moreno, a professor of medical ethics at the University of Virginia, was asked to join a presidential commission studying the effects of government radiation research on human subjects. (These experiments were first uncovered by journalist Eileen Welsome, whose new book The Plutonium Files, p. 1041, describes them in detail.) Here he recounts his experiences on the commission, but, more, he lifts his eyes from bureaucratic paperwork to consider the history of secret state testing of such horrors as anthrax, mustard gas, Zyklon B, Agent Orange, and other toxic brews on unfortunate subjects ranging from prisoners of war, garden-variety criminals, and civil service employees to military personnel. Morenos approach is that of a medical ethicist, and throughout he examines questions of disclosure and foreknowledge, claiming that human experiments . . . are probably unavoidable in the real world of national security. Unavoidable, perhaps, but those experiments have had a range of possible outcomes. With the Nazi doctors a huge class of medical personnel who, it seems, welcomed the chance to conduct evil tests the result was almost always death, for if the test persons did not die in the experiment, they were usually killed so that witnesses would be eliminated. For the technocrats whose tinkerings with science may have resulted in illness among thousands of US veterans of the Gulf War, the results were less lethal but no less sinister. Morenos text is studded with interesting sidelights, among them the evolution of a code of medical ethics following the Nuremberg trials, and detours into little-known facts among them the curious case of the murderer Nathan Leopold (of Leopold and Loeb infamy), who volunteered to be a test subject for antimalarial drugs during WWII, wanting to do his bit for the war effort. An always interesting and often troubling foray into matters about which we know far too little. — Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

Arthur L. Caplan, University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Bioethics, author of Am I My Brother’s Keeper?
“Written in a lively and informative way that challenges the reader’s own ethical thinking, Undue Risk will shape debate about our past and our future with respect to human experimentation for years to come.”



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