Rx to End Torture

Medical professionals should be barred by law from assisting in government sanctioned torture, interrogations and any form of prisoner abuse. That's why medical students, their teachers and others donned lab whites and went to Albany today to urge passage of legislation introduced in New York by Assemblyman Richard Gottfried and Senator Tom Duane. The legislation would reinforce existing ethical responsibilities by prohibiting state-licensed doctors and other health professionals from participating, directly and indirectly, in torture. Equally important, the law would also call for legal protection to resist and report any involvement in acts of abuse. Other states should follow suit in introducing similar legislation.

In a shameful manipulation, the U.S. government has encouraged doctors to assist in interrogations of detainees by redefining the meaning of torture and medical professionals' duties. Anti-torture legislation may help health professionals stand up to political pressure by government employers to assist in this degrading treatment, whether in an advisory capacity or in direct practice. While military agents may be the primary perpetrators of water boarding and other inhumane acts, the removal of medical professionals from the process may render their implementation more difficult and increasingly repugnant to others.

Dating back to the early 1500s, health professionals have been complicit in inflicting torture, both as part of the juridical process and during armed conflicts. Now, physicians are using their professional skills to treat the physical effects of torture or resuscitate a prisoner during an interrogation so that the illegal treatment may continue. Doctors may also devise psychiatric methods and strategies aimed at extracting information.

When medical professionals partake in torture they violate three canons of medical ethics: (1) do no harm, unless the benefits are expected to outweigh the attendant risks; (2) obtain the informed consent of the patient to determine and weigh the harm, risk and expected benefits, and (3) provide treatment to those in medical need without regard to their political beliefs, ability to pay or social status. Facilitators of torture also violate the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the U.N. Convention Against Torture, the Declaration of Tokyo, and Articles 3 and 4 of the Geneva Convention.

The New York bill may help prevent continued participation of health professionals in torture and abuse at Guantánamo Bay and other detention facilities -- some secret -- in the United States and around the world. It will confirm that the duty of professionals licensed in New York applies to their work relationships with all patients and employers, including the government. It will reaffirm that New York licensees are forbidden to participate in torture or other abuse of prisoners, wherever it takes place. And the bill removes New York-licensed health professionals from interrogations and helps them resist unlawful orders that could place them at risk of criminal prosecution and civil damages lawsuits.

The text of the bill is available at http://open.nysenate.gov/legislation/bill/S4495A