Shedding Needed Light

US Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary's decision to open files on the nation's postwar nuclear research programs has generated an interest that is bringing the country face to face with the darker side of scientific research in the name of health or national security.

Reports have surfaced around the country of pregnant women, prisoners, and people diagnosed as terminally ill undergoing government-funded tests that intentionally exposed them to radiation, often without their knowledge and without adequate disclosure of the hazards.

One of the more egregious examples comes from the Boston area. In the late 1940s and early '50s, teens at the Fernald State School who were listed as ``morons'' were the subjects of experiments by MIT researchers using food and food supplements containing radioactive calcium and iron. The goal was to study human digestion. Consent letters sent to parents did not mention radioactive material.

On Wednesday, Secretary O'Leary appointed a medical ethicist from the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore to head a task force to investigate past experiments. Lawmakers are expected to hold hearings and introduce legislation to compensate those who underwent experiments.

Another step is needed: Those responsible for the questionable experiments must acknowledge publicly that they were wrong. Assertions by some that the radiation levels were of little or no danger are undercut by the selection of subjects, a process implying some members of society were potentially more expendable than others. Nor is this a question of judging past actions by today's standards, given postwar Nuremberg provisions on experimenting on humans, provisions that many of these experiments violated in spirit, if not in letter.

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