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Pentagon’s Health Experts Endorse Recusal on Medical Ethics Grounds

Charges Against Navy Nurse Who Refused to Force-Feed Should be Dismissed

For Immediate Release

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) today welcomed a recommendation by the Pentagon’s independent health advisors that medical personnel be excused from duties that violate professional ethics. The expert advice to the U.S. Department of Defense supports the dismissal of disciplinary charges against a Navy nurse who refused to force-feed Guantánamo detainees and faces potential discharge, said PHR.

“This endorsement to uphold medical ethics in all circumstances helps empower military doctors and nurses to reject unethical or inhumane practices without fearing reprisal,” said Dr. Vincent Iacopino, PHR’s senior medical advisor. “The U.S. military should swiftly adopt the Defense Health Board’s recommendations and improve structures to support the ethical obligations of its health professionals. If current structures were adequate, the Navy nurse would not be facing possible discharge for refusing to force-feed on ethical grounds. In fact, there would be no force-feeding at Guantánamo at all. It’s contrary to medical ethics and condemned as ill-treatment by the American Medical Association.”

“Ethical Guidelines and Practices for U.S. Military Medical Professionals,” the new report from the Defense Health Board, a federal advisory committee to the Secretary of Defense, states:

Recommendation 3: DoD leadership, particularly the line commands, should excuse health care professionals from performing medical procedures that violate their professional code of ethics, State medical board standards of conduct, or the core tenets of their religious or moral beliefs. However, to maintain morale and discipline, this excusal should not result in an individual being relieved from participating in hardship duty. Additionally, health care professionals should not be excused from military operations for which they have ethical reservations when their primary role is to care for the military members participating in those operations.

PHR said that this recommendation is consistent with established medical ethics and the professional codes of conduct for U.S. doctors and nurses. PHR urged the Department of Defense to dismiss the charges against the Navy nurse, to adopt the advisory board’s recommendations, and to establish policies and mechanisms so that military health professionals do not face reprisals for refusing to carry out duties that violate their ethical responsibilities.

Discharge proceedings are still pending against the Navy nurse relating to his refusal to force-feed on professional ethical grounds in July 2014. In the event of an administrative trial, the nurse faces possible discharge and loss of veteran’s benefits, retirement benefits, and pension eligibility – despite 18 years of service.

The American Nurses Association has publicly stated its support for the nurse and urged the Secretary of Defense to “recognize the ethical code of conduct to which professional registered nurses are accountable” and to dismiss charges against the unnamed nurse. The Chief of Naval Personnel is expected to issue a decision on whether there will be trial at any time.

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.