14 Feb 2017

Doctors' college apologises over 'unfortunate experiment'

3:33 pm on 14 February 2017

After 30 years a public apology has been made from the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, recognising the women affected in what became known as the Unfortunate Experiment at National Women's Hospital.

no caption

National Women's Hospital 1973. Photo: National Women's Hospital 1973

Herbert Green's study, which began in 1966, followed women with major cervical abnormalities without definitively treating them, and without their knowledge or consent. Ron Jones was a junior doctor at the hospital during the study and was involved in exposing the experiment in the 1980s.

About 70 of the women in the study developed cancer and more than half of them died.

The apology was made at Professor Jones' Doctors in Denial book launch at Auckland University of Technology last night.

"The New Zealand committee of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists deeply regrets the events referred to by Professor Jones," New Zealand committee chair Dr Ian Page said.

He said the college's members were sorry for for the harm suffered by the women, as well as the effects on their families.

It was the first public apology, despite a ministerial committee of inquiry into the experiment in 1987 and 1988.

The Cartwright inquiry found there was failure to adequately treat cervical cancer in some patients but also significant and sustained failures in doctors' ethical practices.

Judge Cartwright identified systemic failures in the ethical approval and surveillance procedures for the conduct of research and new treatments.

Clare Matheson helped prompt the inquiry after she was cited, under a pseudonym, in the Metro magazine article 'An unfortunate experiment at National Women's'.

Clare Matheson and Ron Jones.

Clare Matheson and Ron Jones. Photo: RNZ / Laura Tupou

Professor Jones said she had "championed the cause of a forgotten woman".

Ms Matheson was at last night's launch and said she spoke to Dr Page.

"I just wanted him to know that after all these years, to have that official recognition was one of the most moving moments of my life," she said.

But Ms Matheson said after the formalities, "an apology doesn't make you forget".

"A genuine apology is a very meaningful thing and it can allay certain grievous emotions and things, so it must do good.

"But I refuse to use the word 'closure'. There's no such thing. We learn to live with stuff, that's all."

Ms Matheson said she thought the Auckland District Health Board should have apologised by now. She said by not doing so was a "slur on them".

The district health board was not officially represented at last night's event but emailed through a statement of sympathy from its chief medical officer, Margaret Wilsher. It planned to organise a ceremony in May to remember the impact of the events.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs