What Are We Consenting To?

What is consent? Consent is something we give in our everyday lives. From doctors’ offices to sex to even college, we are always giving, or withholding consent. Merriam-Webster defines consent in two ways. 1. The verb, “to give assent or approval: agree”, and 2. The noun, “compliance in or approval of what is done or being proposed by another”. When we go to the doctors’ office we have forms we have to sign, but do we know what is actually on them? Sure they tell us in a quick sentence what it’s about but do we really know? The truth is, we don’t. We blindly sign our medical forms and go on with getting our treatment. 

Today we are lucky enough to be given the option to give out consent. But in order for us to give out consent, we have to know what we are consenting to and we have to be given that chance. In our medical history, not everyone was given the chance to consent to what was happening to them. Many African Americans throughout history had medical experiments done on them without their knowledge. Many of these people just thought they were being cared for.

One specific instance of this can be seen in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. In this study, they promised that they would give free healthcare to about 600 people in Macon County, Alabama if they were to be infected (Washington, 157). They wanted to see the effects of syphilis in untreated African American men and believed that the disease impacted blacks differently than whites. These men did not know they were being studied and believed they were being treated when treatment was being withheld. The men in these studies were being treated for what was referred to as “bad blood”, which is an umbrella term for things such as anemia, syphilis and muscle aches; there was a group of infected and non-infected men. These men were all grouped together and “treated” with things such as vitamins and aspirins. They believed that they all had the same disease of “bad blood” and saw no harm of being together.

 During the time they thought they were being treated they believed they consented to treatment that would help to cure their syphilis. So what exactly did they consent to? They were lied to and deceived for medical research their whole lives. Not once did these men consent to being in a study nor were they ever alerted they were being studied. For years they believed to have been getting life-changing treatment when in fact their lives were at stake. So that brings us to the question, what do we consent to when we go to the doctors? What do those forms say that we so blindly sign? Are we consenting to medical experiments? There is a chance we will never know until someday someone is curious enough to read those forms we sign.

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