On June 7, 2010 Physicians for Human Rights released a report in which they found that medical personnel at Guantanamo Bay had conducted experiments on human subjects, without informed consent, a practice that has been illegal since the Nuremberg trials after World War II revealed the shocking practices at Nazi concentration camps.
Medical experimentation on human subjects is nothing new. It has generally been carried out on subjects who are isolatated and powerless. Many have been called for by the military or CIA. Often these experiments have been carried out in total institutions such as prisonsor institutions for the mentally disabled, or among the poor and disenfranchised. In this country, such experimentation did not stop with the Nuremberg Code or with specific laws here, extending into the 1970’s. The infamous Tuskegee experiment, in which poor black men with syphilis were told they were receiving medical care, but were actually being denied care so that doctors could study the course of syphilis in the human body, began in 1932, but was not discontinued until it was made public in 1972. In the meantime, 40 of their wives had been infected, 19 of their children were born with congenital syphilis, and many of the men had died of the disease.
The PHR study used documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act which, though heavily redacted, included data on the use of specific “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Some of these seem bizarre and well as inhumane, such as experiments on the use of saline solution instead of plain water in waterboarding to see if this mitigated the salt depletion that could result from taking in large quantities of water. An editorial in the New York Times reports that this may have been done so that waterboarding could be done repeatedly on the same person.
Much of the data collected referred to the efficacy of certain techniques used singly or together. For example, if the pain level was not increased by using two or more techniques at the same time, doing so could be justified. There was data on whether and which techniques increased sensitivity to pain. These were conducted with several apparent purposes, but the safety and wellbeing of the prisoners was not a serious concern. Perhaps one of the most troubling findings in the report is that medical and psychological input provided legal cover for the military and intelligence agencies involved in the interrogations, since the interrogators could claim they thought what they were doing did not inflict undue harm.
The first rule in medicine is “first do no harm.” If this report is found to be accurate, the doctors, psychologists and physician’s assistants who participated not only did harm, they helped others who did harm to excuse their behavior and potentially escape punishment.
One of the things I find most troubling about the Obama administration is its reluctance to investigate and prosecute the illegal aspects of the War on Terror, and its quiet decision to continue some of these practices begun under the previous administration. This report raises another reason for thorough investigations, and subsequent legal action if necessary.