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Physicians and Torture

August 12, 2010

Physicians and psychologists participated
in torture. What does that really mean?

Physicians and Torture

In much of the discussion about whether physicians and psychologists were involved in the torture of U.S. detainees during interrogations, those of us who are not healthcare professionals may sometimes have been puzzled about what that actually meant on the ground. Why was their presence – which violates all kinds of international conventions, as well as their own professional standards – so important to the military and CIA?
            In her post, “The Professionalization of Torture,” at the Human Rights First blog, Melina Milazzo discusses a new commentary from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) which helps to explain. A brief quote… 

Despite medical ethical standards which prohibit physicians from facilitating torture or being present when torture takes place, medical professionals performed on-site medical evaluations of detainees before and during interrogation. Moreover, even while recognizing that these techniques created serious medical risks (e.g. waterboarding creates risks of drowning, hypothermia, aspiration pneumonia, or laryngospasm; cramped confinement could result in thrombosis; and lengthy exposure to cold water could lead to death), the CIA Office of Medical Services (OMS) approved that these methods did not amount to torture if certain medical limitations were in place.
            For example, a detainee could be diapered until evidence of skin loss; exposed to temperatures right up to the development of hypothermia; exposed to noise just under the decibel levels associated with permanent hearing loss; deprived of food up to the point of significant malnutrition; subjected to shackling in upright sitting or horizontal position for 48 hours (longer allowed with medical monitoring); and confined to a box for 8 consecutive hours or 18 hours a day if placed in the larger box…

Read the full blog post here. The complete JAMA commentary, “Roles of CIA Physicians in Enhanced Interrogation and Torture of Detainees,” by Leonard S. Rubenstein, JD and Stephen N. Xenakis, MD,  is available from the organization’s website but, unfortunately, by purchase or subscription only. Maybe you have a friend who’s an AMA member…

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