Health professionals’ pledge rejects any form of participation in or condoning torture

Sean Murphy*

Physicians for Human Rights is sponsoring a Health Professionals’ Pledge Against Torture that includes statements that signatories will never “participate or condone” torture and support colleagues who “resist orders to torture or inflict harm.”  It also commits signatories to insist that their professional associations support those facing pressure “to participate or condone torture and ill-treatment.”

What is noteworthy is that the pledge is not limited to simply refusing to torture someone, but is a pledge against participation (which would include forms of facilitation like referral) and against condoning the practice.

Replace “torture” with commonly morally contested procedures and it becomes obvious that the ethical position taken by Physicians for Human Rights vis-à-vis torture is identical to the position of many health care professionals who object to practices like euthanasia or abortion for reasons of conscience.

Doctors launch online pledge against torture

BioEdge

Michael Cook*

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has launched an online pledge for health professionals across the United States to reject torture as an absolute wrong which can never be sanctioned.

“At a time when human rights are increasingly under threat, we’ve launched this pledge to marshal the powerful voices of health professionals across the United States and reaffirm their ethical duties to honour human dignity,” said PHR’s executive director, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR)Donna McKay. . . .[Full text]

A war interrogator racked by conscience

 Kael Weston

Eric Fair was a civilian interrogator for the U.S. military for several months in Iraq in 2004 and ever since has felt haunted by his inexcusable behavior.

In his important memoir, “Consequence,” Fair confronts his demons. He recognizes the “things that can’t be undone” and writes about them with painful clarity: “This is the first detainee I lay hands on. I grab him by his clothing and drag him out of his chair . . . I shove him into the wall . . . it feels good.” He describes a joint interrogation of an Iraqi boy. The goal: to wrest a confession out of him. “I scare him. I shout,” he writes. “I throw a chair. It ricochets off the wall. I call the MP [military policeman] inside and he handcuffs the boy to the iron loop in the floor. . . . He suffers. He cries.” . .  . [Full text]

The nuts and bolts of CIA torture

BioEdge

Michael Cook

Can doctors participate in torture if there is a reasonable expectation of mitigating the harm done? It could be a seductive hope for a military doctor who is under pressure to cooperate.

However, in a book review in the Journal of Medical Ethics, Henry Shue, of Oxford University, explains that the latest CIA techniques of torture make even minimal participation ethically impossible, no matter how low the bar is set.

Contemporary torture is not so much physical as mental. Its goal is to make the person “psychological putty” in the hands of his interrogators.

The goal of the CIA paradigm as used in Guantanamo is to produce at least temporary regression to an infantile state in which the torture victim will become completely compliant (and therefore supposedly tell the torturers what they want to know). Infantile regression is produced by unhinging the structure of the self of the torture victim and alienating him from his own values through methods like sexual humiliation, religious contempt, sleep deprivation and temperature extremes.

An essential element in this is ensuring that no stable human relationship of any kind should develop between the victim and his captors.

… such total control is maintained over the victim that it is difficult for me to imagine how even if a well disposed doctor could manage to have meaningful conferences with a victim, or by some other method somehow discern what she took his genuine interests to be (as a physician attending an unconscious patient might), that the authorities at a torture site like Guantanamo would ever permit a doctor to take action that served the interests of the victim in a manner that was contrary to the demands of its relentless regression regimen.

A doctor needs to establish some bond with a patient and to understand his history in order to help him. But in this regimen, it would be impossible to know anything meaningful about the victim’s real state of mind. So it is quite unlikely that a doctor’s complicity with the torturers will ever succeed in lessening the pain of the victim.


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Torture: sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, say bioethicists

Michael Cook*

Torture is an issue on which the public might expect bioethicists to be moral absolutists. Never again! Never ever! It was somewhat surprising, then, to read in the New York Times that one of the world’s leading animal rights theorists, Oxford’s Jeff McMahan, support torture. . . .   Full Text 

Psychologists criticised in CIA torture report

Michael Cook*

Two psychologists contracted by the CIA to create enhanced interrogation techniques for al-Qaeda detainees have come under fire for violating human rights and medical ethics. Although pseudonyms were used in the 480-page report published this week by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, it was clearly referring to Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell, who were paid US$81 million for their work. . . .  Full Text 

Complicity after the fact

Moral blindness becomes a virtue and necessity

US scientists were “accomplices after the fact” in Japanese doctors’ war crimes

Bioedge

Michael Cook*

All of contemporary bioethics springs from the Nuremberg Doctors Trial in 1947. Seven Nazi doctors and officials were hanged and nine received severe prison sentences for performing experiments on an estimated 25,000 prisoners in concentration camps without their consent. Only about 1,200 died but many were maimed and psychologically scarred.

So what did the US do to the hundreds of Japanese medical personnel who experimented on Chinese civilians and prisoners of war of many nationalities, including Chinese, Koreans, Russians, Australians, and Americans? They killed an estimated 3,000 people in the infamous Unit 731 in Harbin, in northeastern China before and during World War II – plus tens of thousands of civilians when they field-tested germ warfare. Many of the doctors were academics from Japan’s leading medical schools.
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Does medical education make physicians susceptible to participating in torture?

  • Craig Klugman* | . . . Medical education does not provide courses in moral courage, defying authority, or turning against the tide of one’s peers. In fact, medical education encourages group think, keeping your head down and knowing your place in the hierarchy, and seeking out the approval of your peers. . .
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Health professionals participated in cruelty and torture

Medical, Military, and Ethics Experts Say Health Professionals Designed and Participated in Cruel, Inhumane, and Degrading Treatment and Torture of Detainees

New York, NY — An independent panel of military, ethics, medical, public health, and legal experts today charged that U.S. military and intelligence agencies directed doctors and psychologists working in U.S. military detention centers to violate standard ethical principles and medical standards to avoid infliction of harm. The Task Force on Preserving Medical Professionalism in National Security Detention Centers (see attached) concludes that since September 11, 2001, the Department of Defense (DoD) and CIA improperly demanded that U.S. military and intelligence agency health professionals collaborate in intelligence gathering and security practices in a way that inflicted severe harm on detainees in U.S. custody.

These practices included “designing, participating in, and enabling torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment” of detainees, according to the report. Although the DoD has taken steps to address some of these practices in recent years, including instituting a committee to review medical ethics concerns at Guantanamo Bay Prison, the Task Force says the changed roles for health professionals and anemic ethical standards adopted within the military remain in place. [Full report]