For Immediate Release
Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) today welcomed the U.S. Navy’s decision not to discharge a nurse for refusing to force-feed detainees on hunger strike at Guantánamo Bay. PHR called on the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to uphold medical ethics by adopting the policy recommendations of a federal advisory committee that endorses recusal, and by ending force-feeding altogether.
“We commend the Navy for recognizing that military health professionals should not be punished for following medical ethics,” said Dr. Vincent Iacopino, PHR’s medical director. “But the military policy of compelling health professionals to force-feed competent adults also must end because it requires health professionals to inflict physical and mental pain. As health professionals, we cannot conduct medical procedures against the will of our patients, nor can we inflict pain for non-clinical purposes.”
In March 2015, the Defense Health Board – a federal advisory group to the Pentagon – issued ethics and practice recommendations for military health care that further legitimized the nurse’s position. PHR said that it supported these recommendations, including that all DoD policy and practice reflect the primacy of health professionals’ duty to patients and that medical personnel be excused from procedures that violate professional ethics.
For nearly a year, the Navy nurse faced possible discharge and loss of retirement and veterans benefits due to his refusal to force-feed on professional and ethical grounds. Since July 2014, numerous medical organizations and authorities have come to the nurse’s defense, including Physicians for Human Rights, the American Nurses Association, the American Medical Association, the World Medical Association, the International Council of Nurses, and U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein. The nurse, who has served in the Navy for more than 18 years, will be allowed to return to his duties and complete his career.
“Doctors and nurses can and should recuse themselves from force-feeding – a form of ill-treatment prohibited by medical ethics and international law,” said Dr. Iacopino. “The Department of Defense should adopt the Health Board’s recommendations but also revise its instructions to ensure that all health care personnel, whether they work in clinical or non-clinical capacities, are able to act independently and according to the ethical obligations of their profession.”
PHR has documented that force-feeding at Guantanamo is done without medical necessity or benefit, in violation of fundamental principles of patient consent, and in a manner that inflicts physical and psychological anguish on detainees. As the United States continues to force-feed hunger strikers indefinitely detained at Guantánamo, and obstructs the release of force-feeding videos, the DoD should listen to its own experts as well as the medical community at large and allow medical professionals to remove themselves from engaging in torture and ill-treatment.
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.