Conference to Define Medical Ethics in Wake of Military Torture

Physicians’ treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay has united medical associations against military policy.

GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA - SEPTEMBER 16:  (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been reviewed by the U.S. Military prior to transmission.) A U.S. military guard carries shackles before moving a detainee inside the U.S. detention center for "enemy combatants" on September 16, 2010 in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. With attempts by the Obama administration to close the facility stalled, some 170 detainees remain at the detention center, which was opened by the Bush administration after the attacks of 9/11. The facility is run by Joint Task Force Guantanamo, located on the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay on the southeastern coast of Cuba.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
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Clara Ritger
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Clara Ritger
Dec. 1, 2013, 6:46 a.m.

For more than a dec­ade, a group of med­ic­al pro­fess­ors has sought to stop the mis­treat­ment of Guantanamo Bay de­tain­ees, which they said vi­ol­ated med­ic­al prac­tice and eth­ics.

The group — along with many oth­ers that have formed after tor­ture and hun­ger strikes at Guantanamo be­came pub­lic know­ledge — has un­suc­cess­fully tried to get the United States to al­ter its mil­it­ary and in­ter­rog­a­tion policies to ad­here more strictly to a code of med­ic­al eth­ics.

Now they’re tak­ing a new ap­proach. On Monday, Bo­ston Uni­versity pro­fess­ors and the Con­sti­tu­tion Pro­ject will con­vene in Wash­ing­ton with oth­er law­yers and med­ic­al pro­fes­sion­als to de­vel­op a con­sensus around a defin­i­tion of med­ic­al eth­ics so that pro­fes­sion­al med­ic­al as­so­ci­ations can unite to en­cour­age phys­i­cians to act ac­cord­ing to their own con­sciences.

“No phys­i­cian should be ex­pec­ted to vi­ol­ate their eth­ics just be­cause they have been as­signed pris­on work,” said George An­nas, a BU eth­ics and health law pro­fess­or.

The goal is to en­able phys­i­cians to say no to mil­it­ary or­ders that vi­ol­ate a defin­i­tion of med­ic­al eth­ics agreed upon by the pro­fes­sion­al com­munity.

“It’s ul­ti­mately cor­rupt­ing to the prac­tice of medi­cine,” An­nas said. “When high-rank­ing people in the United States gov­ern­ment jus­ti­fy phys­i­cians vi­ol­at­ing med­ic­al eth­ics, that should be in­tol­er­able.”

An­nas and two col­leagues — in­clud­ing BU med­ic­al pro­fess­or Son­dra Crosby — pub­lished an art­icle over the sum­mer stat­ing that Amer­ic­an phys­i­cians have not cri­ti­cized the treat­ment of de­tain­ees at Guantanamo to the ex­tent they should. Crosby said they re­ceived emailed re­sponses “which did sup­port the no­tion that doc­tors felt they were sup­posed to put the mil­it­ary mis­sion ahead of the pa­tients.”

Crosby has been to Guantanamo eight times, but she said she can’t pub­licly share what she saw. One of the is­sues she has with the treat­ment of de­tain­ees is force-feed­ing, a prac­tice De­fense De­part­ment of­fi­cials have jus­ti­fied by as­sert­ing it is wrong to al­low someone to die from a hun­ger strike.

Crosby also said the chain of com­mand — phys­i­cians tak­ing in­struc­tions from mil­it­ary per­son­nel — puts med­ic­al prac­tice and eth­ics second to mil­it­ary or­der.

“What we want to look at,” Crosby said, “is what mech­an­isms can we put in place so that these policies are not in­com­pat­ible with phys­i­cians up­hold­ing their med­ic­al eth­ics?”

Monday’s pro­gram be­gins at 8 a.m. with break­fast and re­gis­tra­tion, and it’s open to the pub­lic. On the agenda are the cases of two de­tain­ees, a pan­el on hun­ger strikes, and a for­ward-look­ing ses­sion with re­com­mend­a­tions about med­ic­al prac­tice and eth­ics.

The event is at the Na­tion­al Academy of Sci­ences, at 2101 Con­sti­tu­tion Ave NW.

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