Undue Risk

About the book

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.


“Between 1949 and 1969, the U.S. Army conducted over 200 “field tests” as part of its biological warfare research program, releasing infectious bacterial agents in cities across the U.S. without informing residents of the exposed areas, Moreno reveals in this chilling, meticulously documented casebook. A professor of biomedical ethics at the University of Virginia, Moreno (Arguing Euthanasia) served on a ClintonAappointed advisory committee that blew the lid off the government’s secret radiation experiments from WWII through the mid-1970s, which involved the injection of unwitting human volunteers with plutonium, uranium and other radioactive substances. His disturbing new book partly overlaps with Eileen Welsome’s The Plutonium Files (Forecasts, Aug. 2), though Moreno’s survey extends furtherAfrom Walter Reed’s turn-of-the-century yellow fever research to the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study; from army and air force mind control experiments (1950–1975) involving ingestion of LSD and incapacitating chemicals by thousands of subjects, often without their consent, to the compulsory vaccination of Gulf War GIs with botulism toxin vaccine not approved by the FDA that may have contributed to “Gulf war syndrome.” While Moreno duly excoriates the excesses and horrors, his overarching thesis is that human military experimentation is unavoidable, and he commends the army’s current infectious-agent research program at Fort Detrick, Md., as a model for future “ethical” research. Some readers may welcome his coolly detached chronicle as a complement to Welsome’s scathing, far more powerful expos.”
Publisher’s Weekly

“The infamous Nazi medical experiments on human subjects represent an extreme of government arrogance. But many other nations, including the U.S., have done similar if less egregious things, usually in the name of national security. Radiation, chemical agents and disease-causing agents are tested on people who have not given informed consent and may not even know they were test subjects. Moreno, professor of biomedical ethics at the University of Virginia and director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics there, decided to pursue the subject after his service on the presidential Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1994 to investigate allegations of government-sponsored radiation research on unknowing citizens during the cold war. He tells of secret medical experiments, some ancient but most during and since World War II, by many nations. ‘If there is a single lesson to be gleaned from the story of military-medical human experiments,’ he says, ‘it is that we can expect them to continue in the future…. I believe it is also true that these experiments can be done ethically.'”
Scientific American

Praise for the book

“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


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