Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Serving two masters

I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone. -- Hippocratic Oath (English translation)
When a person becomes a doctor, or other health professional, they take the Hippocratic Oath vowing never to do anything to harm a patient. A doctor's ethical duty is to do what's in the best interest of his or her patient. 

After the US government declared its War on Everything Terror after 9/11, the CIA began its programs of rendition and torture. In order to determine the most effective method to extract information from a prisoner, the Department of Defense looked to its Behavioral Science Consultation Teams made up of behavioral scientists - including psychiatrists.

Psychiatrists are considered to be medical professionals. They have a medical degree and they take the same Hippocratic Oath as a pediatrician, internist or neurologist. 

But, instead of following their ethical obligations to do no harm to any patient, they jumped at the opportunity to put together interrogation programs designed to humiliate, degrade and cause physical harm to prisoners. Other medical professionals who worked for the government provided assistance to the regime of torture by advising interrogators how far they could go in a given "interrogation technique." They treated prisoners and nursed them back to health so they could be tortured again. They also assisted the government by forcibly inserting feeding tubes into prisoners who were on hunger strike so they wouldn't die on the government's dime.

Even more galling is the fact that not one of the doctors, nurses or other medical professionals who witnessed and participated in the torture program ever raised their voice in protest against what can only be described as a crime against humanity. Not a one. 

They were more than willing to sell their souls - and their ethics - to win the War on Terror. 

The Institute of Medicine as a Profession and the Open Society Foundations conducted a two-year study that looked into the role medical professionals played in the torture regime initiated by President Bush and continued by President Obama. What they found should turn the stomach of anyone who hasn't yet drank the government's koolaid.

The US government would like us to believe it's no big deal. They would like you to believe that the oath these men and women took upon joining the team trumps the one they took when they became doctors and nurses. I hate to break it to you, but it doesn't work that way.

A doctor takes an oath to serve his or her patient. The doctor didn't take an oath to serve another power. He didn't take an oath to serve a publicly-held hospital corporation. He didn't take an oath to serve an insurance company. He took that oath to put his patient first.

The medical professionals who provided assistance to those who tortured prisoners may very well have gone into government service for the very best of motives. But they were blinded by the pre-packaged patriotism that we are fed like turkeys being fattened up for the holidays.

They violated the oaths they took when they helped design torture regimes. They violated the oaths they took when they monitored prisoners during the torture process. They violated their oaths when they strapped prisoners down and forced feeding tubes down their noses. They violated their oaths when they kept their mouths shut about what they had seen and what they had done.

A lawyer takes an oath to represent his client as zealously as possible (with the exception that a prosecutor takes an oath to see that justice is done). Everything that a lawyer does in a particular case must be weighed against that duty. A lawyer serves his client - and his client alone. A lawyer can't have two masters. And neither can a medical professional. Once you start trying to serve two masters you will find that you can't do it and act in the best interest of your client - or your patient - at the same time.

Those medical professionals who assisted the torture program betrayed not only the prisoners they were supposedly there to assist; they also betrayed society.


Unknown said...

Apparently doctors are human after all and not God. Like any other humans capable of good or evil. Paul, you are right. These are doctors, who would have been quite comfortable serving the corporal who could not paint.

Carl H said...

"No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other."