five questions

The ethical physician

Brown clinical associate professor Scott Allen of Physicians for Human Rights examines Libyan political prisoner Fathi al-Jahmi at Tripoli Medical Center on March 13, 2008. Al-Jahmi, a Gaddafi critic who suffered from cardiac disease, died in May 2009. His family claimed the Libyan government denied him proper medical care during his last months.

Credit: ©Fred Abrahams/Human Rights Watch

Beyond interrogation

In the post-9/11 panic to identify terrorists, did America lose its moral compass when it came to questioning detainees? Scott Allen of the Alpert Medical School, lead author of a new report by Physicians for Human Rights, thinks we can – and must – do better.

By Anne Coyle  |  June 7, 2010  |  Email to a friend

A report by Physicians for Human Rights has found that interrogation techniques applied under the Bush administration to terrorism suspects in CIA custody amount to unethical experimentation and research. Scott Allen, clinical associate professor of medicine at Brown University and co-director of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights, is the lead medical author of the report. (Today at Brown has reported on Allen’s work in the past.)

We asked Allen to discuss the most recent report’s findings and what they mean for detainees’ rights specifically and for human rights in general in the 21st century.

This report is disturbing in many respects, but most importantly in documenting the apparent use of experimentation on the detainees. What does this mean for the medical community?

Scott Allen: Scott Allen The report should be a call to action by the medical community. In addition to the injustice of the obvious human rights violations, health professionals everywhere should be deeply disturbed by the fact the U.S. government directed licensed health professionals to engage in conduct that violates core medical ethics.

Medical professionals should be disturbed to see how the science of medicine was manipulated to achieve and support an outcome desired by the government. Many of the legal opinions rationalizing the use of torture were based on “junk” science. So, there are issues of the integrity of the science and its misuse by government raised here as well.

How could such “enhanced” interrogation techniques have been allowed in our post-Nuremberg society?

We might also ask, “How could torture have been allowed?” Doctors, like everyone else, were seduced by the argument that rules of ethical conduct could be bent in the post-9/11 world. Throughout history, however, national security has been used as an excuse for human rights violations. What defines us as a society and a profession is how we conduct ourselves in the face of challenges like these. We made some very bad choices that have served neither the profession nor the country well.

What evidence upset you the most personally?

When I first read the directive to the CIA doctors instructing them to monitor waterboarding and to make careful and detailed observations of the reaction of the subjects to this torture technique, I realized that they had strayed far from accepted professional ethics. It made me sick to think that doctors were directed to use their skills to calibrate pain and harm.

What are your immediate recommendations?

As a nonprofit group, Physicians for Human Rights has no subpoena power. We have carefully reviewed heavily redacted U.S. government documents and provided evidence that crimes may have been committed. The appropriate authorities, including the Office for Human Research Protections in the Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Department of Justice, and Congress need to thoroughly investigate this question to answer clearly whether or not a program of human experimentation was a part of the U.S. interrogation program.

What can we as a society do to ensure that this never happens again?

Many, including President Obama, have suggested that we end the use of torture and move on. But that solution is only as durable as the next election or the next attack on the United States. As someone who has carefully studied the U.S. descent into torture with full medical complicity, I believe it is imperative that we carefully examine how we so quickly abandoned long-held standards of professional conduct and human rights. If we don’t, we are all the more likely to repeat our most regrettable mistakes.