Groups Gather to Define Medical Ethics in Wake of Military Torture

The sun rises above Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba. The sun rises above Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba. Charles Dharapak/AP

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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