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Leading Doctors Ask President Obama to End Force-Feeding and Restore Medical Ethics at Guantánamo

Former U.S. Surgeon General and Six Nobel Laureates Among Those Calling for Reforms

For Immediate Release

More than 35 prominent doctors and public health professionals – including a former U.S. surgeon general, six Nobel Laureates in chemistry and medicine, and 18 current and former deans of public health and medical schools – are calling on President Obama to end force-feeding at Guantánamo and stop undermining medical care.

The medical leaders have sent the president a letter, highlighting that some detainees remain on hunger strike and continue to be force-fed, a practice that goes against established medical ethics and has been condemned by the American Medical Association (AMA) and the World Medical Association (WMA). The signatories, who have all been leaders at major U.S. health institutions, say that participating in force-feeding requires doctors to forego their independent medical judgment.

“Force-feeding undermines appropriate medical care and ethical responsibilities because physicians act as agents of command – a fundamental violation of professionalism,” states the letter, signed by 39 medical and public health leaders.

Signatories include Dr. Richard Carmona, a former U.S. surgeon general; Dr. Torsten Wiesel, winner of the 1981 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine and president emeritus and the Vincent and Brook Astor Professor Emeritus at Rockefeller University; Dr. Stephen Xenakis, a retired U.S. Army brigadier general who has examined a number of Guantánamo detainees; Dr. Ruth Faden, the Philip Franklin Wagley Professor of Biomedical Ethics and founding director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics; and Dr. Deborah Ascheim, chair of the board of directors of Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) and associate professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

“Like countless other medical doctors across the United States and beyond, I’m appalled by our government’s blatant disrespect for medical ethics at Guantánamo,” Ascheim said. “The medical community has spoken: it is time to end the degrading and dehumanizing practice of force-feeding, and start respecting detainees’ basic human rights.”

Dr. Michael J. Klag, dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, is one of a number of current deans who signed the letter. “Physicians have a core duty to care and advocate for their patients,” he said. “Supporting force-feeding runs counter to this essential responsibility. At Guantánamo, physicians have instead become agents of coercion designed to break political protests. This should never happen.”

The letter was sent to President Obama on Friday and issued publicly today. The signatories signed the letter in their personal capacities only.

Meanwhile, an independent task force issued a report yesterday highlighting violations of medical ethics at Guantánamo, including improperly engaging medical staff in interrogation and torture practices, requiring health professionals to forgo independent medical judgment and force-feed the detainees, and failing to adopt international standards for medical reporting of detainee abuse. The report calls on the Department of Defense and the CIA to follow established medical requirements that enable doctors to adhere to their ethical standards, and asks medical associations and the American Psychological Association (APA) to strengthen standards related to interrogation and the detention of detainees.

The sign-on letter from medical leaders can be read here. PHR’s new fact sheet on hunger strikes and force-feeding is available here.

Phone briefing for reporters scheduled for 2pm ET today. Please contact Vesna Jaksic Lowe at vjaksiclowe [at] phrusa [dot] org or 917-679-0110 for more information and to RSVP.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

Media Contact

Kevin Short

Deputy Director, Media & Communications1.917.679.0110

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