Saturday, November 3, 2007

Doctors and torture

As a disclaimer this post is based upon an episode of Law and Order:SVU that I just saw. The episode looks at the "torture light" techniques that have become famous in Iraq and at Abu Gharib prison. It has a Blackwater like agency that are mercenaries in Iraq who do much of the "security". This agency cannot be charged as they are protected by Executive Orders (this is not even an issue I want to touch here). The man who was the torturer can be charged as he is whisked away in the middle of the night outside of the country by the mercenary company. So at this point, the case shifts to the doctor who is supposed to have created much of the "torture light" techniques for the mercenaries and oversaw much of the torture in Iraq. She is not supposed to have been directly involved in the torture, but acted as a physician making sure things "did not get out of hand" (directly from the show). The jury is found to have been split, but a mistrial had been declared. The doctor is then brought before the state medical ethics board. She says that she was not acting as a doctor, merely as a scientific consultant and that after 9/11 she felt that she had skills to contribute to the fight against terrorism.

Although this show has a liberal bent and I am aware of that, I still think that there is a point that needs to be made here. According to this article from June 27, 2006 in Slate Magazine, there were doctors at Abu Gharib and none of them would stand-up to question what was happening. They saw victims who had bruises all over there bodies and who showed signs of having been physically tortured and they did nothing. They saw victims where the official story that the victim was being questioned and then didn't feel well and collapsed, did not fit the physical signs and symptoms. There were autopsies either falsified or not done to say that the victims died of natural causes when this was obviously not the case.

The World Medical Association created a policy in May 2006 that forbids physicians from participating in "...torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading procedures, whatever the offense of which the victim of such procedures is suspected, accused or guilty, and whatever the victim's beliefs or motives, and in all situations, including armed conflict and civil strife." They are also banned from even giving knowledge that may lead to torture including a breach of confidentiality which would give interrogators information that could be used in torture.

So, how should we then handle doctors who are in Iraq or Guantanamo Bay or any other place where torture takes place and the doctor does not report it? There has been much outrage over the soldiers and some of them have been court-martialed or brought before other courts of law. Some soldiers have been discharged from the military and many have faced no repercussions as all, but some have. But in looking at the various articles that do exist online and most of them are from no later than 2006 there has been no repercussions for any of the medical staff at these facilities. Many of the articles ask the question, "Where was the medical staff?" I say they were right there at the base and knew what was going on and they covered it up. I say they are more guilty and should face harsher punishment than the interrogators. Doctors have to take the Hippocratic Oath which basically says that as doctors they will try to do no harm. Soldiers and other interrogators do not take such an oath. They do not promise to do no harm and in fact are only bound by the law. Doctors are also bound by the law, but they should also be bound by the Hippocratic Oath. They should do no harm to another person who is in their care and they should not break confidentiality to help another hurt a person that is in their care.

Finally, are the doctors at these prisons always acting as medical professionals or are they merely consultants as the character on SVU posits? To this question I do not know the answer and would say that I guess it would depend on the exact situation, but shouldn't a doctor be a 24/7 job? Should you really turn-off being a doctor?


fairlane said...

If doctors were present, they should have their licenses revoked.

But as we all know, consequences are like the Dodo bird in this administration.

Unless of course, you happen to oppose them.

Boxer rebel said...

Fairlane- I totally agree with you. And according to the articles that I found in several journals there were doctors that were present at this military bases and they did the victims of the torture and covered it up. So they should lose their license, but we know they wouldn't.

FranIAm said...

This is an important issue and reading your post reminds me of a particular era in history.

Does anyone want to guess what era that was?

How about Nazi Germany?

This ties to what is so offensive about the Mukasey hearings.... As we sit and hairsplit over what torture is or isn't torture is being inflicted.

Our country has gone down a very bad road indeed and I am afraid it will be awhile before we head back to a more favorable and humane destination.