Clinical care and complicity with torture

British Medical Journal 360:k449 (2018)
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The UN Convention against Torture defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person” by someone acting in an official capacity for purposes such as obtaining a confession or punishing or intimidating that person.1 It is unethical for healthcare professionals to participate in torture, including any use of medical knowledge or skill to facilitate torture or allow it to continue, or to be present during torture.2-7 Yet medical participation in torture has taken place throughout the world and was a prominent feature of the US interrogation practice in military and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) detention facilities in the years after the attacks of 11 September 2001.8-11 Little attention has been paid, however, to how a regime of torture affects the ability of health professionals to meet their obligations regarding routine clinical care for detainees. The 2016 release of previously classified portions of guideline from the CIA regarding medical practice in its secret detention facilities sheds light on that question. These show that the CIA instructed healthcare professions to subordinate their fundamental ethical obligations regarding professional standards of care to further the objectives of the torturers.

Author's Profile

Zackary Berger
Johns Hopkins University


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