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AMA opposes doctors in prisoner interrogation

The direct involvement of doctors in prisoner interrogation is unethical, the American Medical Association said Monday in a new policy stemming from concerns about treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The direct involvement of doctors in prisoner interrogation is unethical and violates their oath to do no harm, the American Medical Association said Monday in a new policy stemming from concerns about treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere.

“Physicians in all circumstances must never be involved in activities that are physically or mentally coercive. If physicians engage in such activities, the whole profession is tainted,” according to the new policy adopted by delegates at the AMA’s annual meeting.

The policy says doctors may participate in developing non-coercive interrogation techniques for general training purposes. They may also provide medical care for prisoners, but not if that treatment is conditional on a patient’s participation in interrogation.

Doctors who learn of any coercive interrogation are ethically obligated to report it to authorities, the policy says.

The measure stems from concerns about military use of psychiatrists and psychologists as behavioral science consultants, or “biscuit” teams, to help interrogators obtain information from detainees.

These teams observe but don’t conduct the interrogation process, according to Dr. William Winkenwerder, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.

Coercion alleged
News reports have said these teams have helped interrogators create techniques involving coercive tactics including sleep deprivation and playing on prisoners’ fears or phobias to extract information.

But in a briefing last week about military guidelines for medical involvement with detainees, Winkenwerder said he did not think those actions had occurred.

Delegates to the nation’s largest physician group adopted the policy without debate during their five-day annual meeting, which ends Wednesday.

The policy was recommended by the AMA’s Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs, whose report on the issue “provides valuable and ethical guidance,” said Lt. Gen. George Taylor, the Air Force surgeon general. He spoke in support of the measure at an AMA committee meeting Sunday.

Dr. David Fassler, an AMA member and Vermont psychiatrist, said the policy underscores that doctor involvement in prisoner interrogation is “simply incompatible with our primary obligation to do no harm.”

Links AMA to other medical bodies
The AMA’s new stand “affirms a really profound ethical principle that physicians are there for the well-being of people, whoever they are — not to induce distress or monitor and calibrate the level of distress, which is what the Pentagon really wants,” said Leonard Rubenstein, executive director of Physicians for Human Rights.

The new policy puts the AMA on the same page as the France-based World Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association, which last month said psychiatrists, who are medical doctors, should not be involved in prisoner interrogation.

Winkenwerder said the behavioral teams have mostly involved psychologists but that given the psychiatrists’ new stance, the military would generally seek not to use them except when psychologists aren’t available.

The AMA stance does not affect psychologists because they are not medical doctors.

But Stephen Vehnke, ethics director at the American Psychological Association, said his group’s position states that psychologists should not be involved in direct interrogation of detainees, or in tactics that could lead to cruel and abusive treatment of prisoners.