Article accuses military doctors

Physicians conspired in abuse, scholar says.

Suspected of having condoned the torture of Iraqi prisoners, some U.S. military doctors now face ugly comparisons to soldier-physicians who conspired in abuses by Saddam Hussein, Adolf Hitler and other dictators.

Although the Americans’ alleged misconduct is far less severe, some say it is made worse because they did not have to fear being killed if they didn’t cooperate.

“I don’t think there are shades of gray,” said Vincent Iacopino, director of research for Physicians for Human Rights. “If they did not have the immediate threat of harm, they had the obligation if they witnessed abuses to say something about them.”

The Department of Defense issued a statement Friday taking “strong exception” to allegations made last week in the British medical journal The Lancet. An article by an American professor said doctors at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison falsified death certificates to hide killings, hid evidence of beatings and revived a prisoner so he could be tortured more.

The defense department says there is “no evidence” of that and objects to what it calls the “wholesale indictment” of U.S. medical personnel and care in Iraq.

Medical ethicists say that being silent while patients are harmed is a profound breach of ethics and the oath that doctors take. They have called for reforms of military medicine, more training for doctors to recognize signs of torture and an independent, non-military-led investigation of the scandal.

The Lancet article was written by Steven Miles, a University of Minnesota professor who has researched human rights issues for 20 years. It was based on media reports, congressional testimony, sworn statements of detainees and soldiers and medical journal accounts – not events he witnessed firsthand.

Miles does not shed light on how many doctors were involved or how widespread the problem of medical complicity was, aspects he says he is now investigating.

The Lancet report follows an essay in the July 29 New England Journal of Medicine by Robert Jay Lifton, a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist, noting mounting reports of abuses and urging military doctors to come forward with what they know. He alluded to incidents in the past where doctors had roles in torture or abuse, including the brutal experiments by Joseph Mengele and other Nazi doctors during World War II.

Being a doctor and being a soldier are not conflicting duties, said Martha Huggins, an author, sociologist and longtime torture researcher from Tulane University.

Even if officers or other military personnel were abusing prisoners and detainees, it doesn’t mean the system expects a doctor to be complicit, she said.

“They put you in that position. They have validated that they want you to be a doctor,” and that means doing no harm, Huggins said.

The American Medical Association has long had a policy against doctors joining in abuse “in any form,” said Michael Goldrich, chairman of its council on ethical and judicial affairs.

“Participation in torture by physicians is the most egregious concern, but there are other levels that can range from physicians caring for patients to facilitate their return to interrogation and torture or just awareness of the ongoing presence of torture,” he said.

But written policies against abuse often fall away under the pressure of the kind of counterinsurgency war going on in Iraq, Lifton said. It’s especially dangerous when the enemy is unclear and elusive, the war is on foreign and hostile territory and involves non-whites, he said.

“In that kind of situation, you’re likely to get atrocities that can include doctors,” he said.


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The Associated Press, USA
Aug. 22, 2004
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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday August 24, 2004.
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