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Taking Action: When Healers Harm

2011 June 20

When Healers Harm

This new campaign is an effort by the respected Center for Constitutional Rights to hold physicians and other health professionals accountable for participation in “enhanced interrogation,” and to call such participation what it really is: torture. The campaign’s website, WhenHealersHarm.org, “will house a growing roster of psychologists and physicians who were complicit in torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. The site will be updated as new information about the torture program and its players are revealed.” The following is from the campaign’s statement of purpose:

“Despite the health professions’ universally recognized duty to do no harm, doctors and psychologists have played a key role in the U.S. government’s policy of torture in its overseas prisons. They crafted and justified torture tactics, inflicted pain, oversaw abuse and enabled, covered up and turned a blind eye to cruel treatment. Yet, in the face of clear evidence, government officials, licensing boards and professional associations defend their failure to take action against these health professionals by claiming that they do not have enough information.”
…..“The Center for Constitutional Rights disagrees and, through its When Healers Harm campaign, presents compelling evidence that supports the need for ethical, and in some cases criminal investigations of health professionals complicit in torture and other forms of abuse.”
…..“It is time to hold accountable the healers who have harmed…Accountability is vital to survivors of medical torture and to health professionals, most of whom take seriously their commitment to do no harm.”

Pending Legislation: New York’s Anti-Torture Bill

For several years now, I have been interviewing immigrant torture survivors and the professionals who care for them. Over and over again, I’ve been told that as many as 50% of survivors report the presence of a doctor or other healthcare professional during their torture. Wouldn’t it be comforting if we could hang onto the belief that the doctors, med techs, nurses, and psychologists on “our side” would never be guilty of such behavior? Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and the still-unacknowledged “black sites” have robbed us of our innocence on that issue.
            One of the pitifully few concrete campaigns to do actually do something about this issue is underway right now, and needs your support. Healthcare professionals and their organizations, along with activists and concerned citizens in New York State, have persuaded their legislators to introduce legislation “to ensure accountability for torture and to prevent such atrocities from happening again.” Bills A. 5891 in the New York State Assembly and S. 4495-A in the Senate:

  • Confirm that NY-licensed health professionals’ duty to do no harm applies to their professional relationships with all patients and under all employers;
  • Reaffirm that health professionals licensed in New York are prohibited from involvement in torture or other abuse of prisoners, wherever that abuse takes place;
  • Remove NY-licensed health professionals from interrogations; and
  • Help NY-licensed health professionals resist unlawful orders that could place them at risk of criminal prosecution and civil damages lawsuits.

Detailed information on the campaign, and the texts of the proposed bills, are available on the When Healers Harm website. The campaign’s supporters are asking New York residents to contact their legislators as soon as possible. Letters from non-New Yorkers are also welcome. Professional, religious, and human rights organizations, wherever they are, are invited to send letters of concern and support. See the website for a listing of current supporters

Neglect of Medical Evidence of Torture
in Guantánamo Bay: A Case Series

What about health personnel who may not themselves have participated in torture, but who knew that it was happening. Writing in PLoS Medicine (a journal of the Public Library of Science) physician Vincent Iacopino and retired general Stephen N. Xenakis have examined this question with regard to the prison at our Naval Station, Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. “Little is known,” they report, “about the role of health providers…who should have been in a position to observe and document physical and psychological evidence of torture and ill treatment.”
            Examining all available documents, including medical records and case files on nine individual prisoners, the authors conclude that “the medical personnel who treated the detainees at GTMO failed to inquire and/or document causes of the physical injuries and psychological symptoms they observed…The findings in these nine cases from GTMO indicate that medical doctors and mental health personnel assigned to the DoD neglected and/or concealed medical evidence of intentional harm.”

“The abuses reported in this case series could not be practiced without the interrogators and medical monitors being aware of the severe and prolonged physical and mental pain that they caused.”

The Iacopino/Xenakis study was profiled by Dan Vergano in USA Today under the title Medical care props up Guantánamo tactics.”

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