Last night, we saw The Constant Gardener. I didn’t want to see it, but since it arrived from Netflix and it was Saturday night – our big movie-watching night – I obliged. Rich is in charge of ordering movies from Netflix. He goes through various phases. For a couple of weeks, he ordered instructional videos on sailing and nautical flicks. He’s now swinging back to Indies and edgy drama.

I knew The Constant Gardener was an exceptional film that dealt with disturbing materials… something about Africa and corruption. I was hoping, however, to see something cheerful after suffering through an episode of Horatio Hornblower along with Master and Commander the night before. With a bad attitude, I curled up on the sofa to see The Constant Gardener.

It was unexpectedly absorbing, deeply disturbing and magnificently acted and directed. In a sentence, it’s about an English diplomat (who’s constantly gardening) and his activist wife who discovers that a prominent drug company is testing a new, often fatal drug on unsuspecting natives in Kenya. Throughout the movie, you wonder whether it’s really fictional. Conceivably, in countries where regulatory bodies like the FDA don’t exist, drug companies could be doing experimental testing, causing detrimental side-effects or high death rates.

It happened in the United States for 40 years. Between 1932 and 1972 (just 35 years ago!), the U.S. Public Health Service conducted an experiment in Tuskegee, Alabama, on 399 black men in the late stages of syphilis. Instead of treating them, they allowed them to degenerate and eventually die. Their bodies were then autopsied to determine how syphilis affected blacks as opposed to whites. According to a news report by news anchor Harry Reasoner, the experiment “used human beings as laboratory animals in a long and inefficient study of how long it takes syphilis to kill someone.”

Even more heinous was that 40 of their wives were infected with syphilis and 19 of their children had been born with congenital syphilis. Even when penicillin became widely available to treat syphilis, the men were discouraged from seeking treatment. During World War II, 250 of the men registered for the draft and were consequently ordered to get treatment for syphilis. The Public Health Service, however, exempted them from treatment, allowing their disease to further progress.

Watching The Constant Gardener, I can’t stop myself from thinking that corporate profits and corrupt governmental policies are always going to supersede people’s rights.

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