Physician, Torture Thyself

by Sean Philpott-Jones, Director of the Center for Bioethics and Clinical Leadership

Last week, the US Senate Intelligence Committee released its long awaited report describing the techniques that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) used to interrogate suspected terrorists and other combatants captured during our long running War on Terror.

The so-called Torture Report, the product of a five-year investigation by the Democrat-led Senate, described in harrowing detail the methods used by CIA agents to extract information from detainees, including: waterboarding; sleep deprivation; light deprivation; threats to physically harm or sexually assault individuals, their children or their adult relatives; and “rectal feeding”. Many of these techniques blatantly violated the Geneva Conventions and other international agreements on humanitarian treatment of prisoners of war.

Not surprisingly, the political firestorm that release of this 6,700-page report ignited has been fierce. Many Republican politicians and conservative pundits have condemned the investigation as flawed, biased, and potentially damaging to US interests.

Others, including former Vice President Dick Cheney and key architects of the War on Terror, have defended the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, claiming that countless lives were saved and disputing allegations that any US laws or international treaties were violated. Only a few politicians and pundits on the right, most notably Arizona Senator John McCain (himself a former POW who was tortured), have stood up to defend the report.

On the other side of the political aisle, the response has been fairly muted. While progressive organizations and advocacy groups like Human Rights Watch have called for criminal investigation of senior Bush Administration officials and CIA operatives involved in the interrogation of prisoners, Democratic politicians and the Obama Administration have largely rejected calls to prosecute those involved. This is, I believe, a rather shrewd and calculated political move.

For this commentary, however, I don’t want dwell on the issue of whether or not the activities described in the Senate’s report question long-standing notions of American exceptionalism: the idea our country stands as a moral exemplar for the rest of the world. Instead, I want to focus on a more practical question: what does the fact that hundreds of doctors, nurses, and psychologists participated in the interrogation of CIA prisoners say about the healthcare profession as a whole?

We now know that CIA staff physicians and psychologists were involved in almost every interrogation session. This is in direct violation of all known codes of medical ethics, including the Hippocratic Oath, the American Medical Association’s (AMA) Code of Medical Ethics, the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct, and the World Medical Association’s Declaration of Tokyo. Despite a primary duty to “do no harm” (primum non nocere), a number of medical professionals have been directly involved in helping the US government, the CIA, and other military and intelligence agencies come up with new and creative ways of torturing prisoners.

For some healthcare professionals, torture is also a lucrative business. Two psychologists, Jim Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, helped the CIA develop its interrogation program. In exchange, they received more than $80 million from the US government.

Consider a few examples of physician involvement in torture outlined in the Senate report: Clinicians with the CIA’s Office of Medical Services, which provides healthcare to Agency employees, decided when detainees’ injuries were sufficiently healed such that agents could again interrogating them. A team of physicians determined which prisoners should be waterboarded, an interrogation technique that simulates drowning.

At one detention site, even though a prisoner’s feet were badly broken, the examining doctor nevertheless recommended that he be forced to stand for nearly 52 hours in order to extract information. Nurses and doctors also used rectal feeding and hydration — forcible injection of water, saline and even a pureed mix of hummus, nuts and pasta through the anus — despite the fact there is no physiological benefit or medical purpose to rectal feeding.

Few of these healthcare professionals are likely to face any consequences. To date, only one clinician has ever been sanctioned for their involvement in torture: a Navy nurse who refused to force-feed prisoners who were on an extended hunger strike at Guantanamo. He will probably be discharged from the military. He may also face criminal prosecution for failing to obey orders.

He will likely be the only medical professional prosecuted. The Obama Administration has largely given a “Get Out of Jail Free” card to everyone involved. In a briefing given by the White House following the release of the Torture Report, for example, a senior official with the US Department of Justice concluded that the CIA’s enhanced interrogation activities were “authorized” and “reviewed as legal” at the time they occurred.

While the AMA and the APA have condemned the actions of the clinicians and psychologists mentioned in the report, as professional organizations with no legal or licensing authority, there is little they can do to punish those involved. State medical licensing boards could suspect or revoke permission to practice, they probably won’t.

It is sad that the perpetrators of these crimes will face no sanction. It is sadder still that politicians, policymakers and the general public will largely ignore the Senate’s report. I can only hope that outrage in the medical community over these and other acts (such as physician involvement in state-sanctioned executions) leads to a change in the way healthcare workers treat suspected terrorists and other prisoners.

[This blog entry was originally presented as an oral commentary on Northeast Public Radio on December 18, 2014, and is available on the WAMC website. The contents of this post are solely the responsibility of the author alone and do not represent the views of the Bioethics Program or Union Graduate College.]

Does A Just Society Use the “R” Word?

by Susan Mathews, Bioethics Program Alumna (2014)

Healthcare spending in the U.S. is expected to grow by more than 5 percent annually over the next ten years. Should that prediction hold true, by 2023 health care spending will account for a fifth of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP). Unfortunately, this level of spending is not sustainable and physicians, policymakers and patients will be forced to make difficult choices about how to ration limited medical resources.

How should the principle of distributive justice, one of the four tenets of medical ethics, guide decisions about the dreaded ‘R’ word: rationing of medical resources?

To read more, click here.

[This post is a summary of an article published on Life Matters Media on December 13, 2014. The contents of this blog are solely the responsibility of the author and do not represent the views of the Bioethics Program or Union Graduate College.]

Protecting Transgender Students

by Sean Philpott-Jones, Director of the Center for Bioethics and Clinical Leadership

Two nights ago, the Shenendehowa Board of Education voted 4 to 2 in favor of a new policy designed to protect the rights and safety of transgender students. High school students in the district will now be allowed to use bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond to their gender identity. The new policy also allows all students, regardless of sex or gender, to access single-user bathrooms and private changing areas.

Located just north of Albany, New York, Shenendehowa Central School District is now one of but a few districts nationwide that provide recognition and support to transgendered youth. Only California has passed a statewide law that allows transgender students to use bathroom and locker facilities that match their gender identities. While the New York City Board of Education released new guidelines in support of transgender students earlier this year – including a recommendation that students never be made to use a locker room or restroom that conflicts with their gender identity – these are only suggestions and not binding policies. Sadly, the New York State Board of Education has been largely silent on this issue.

The US Federal government has also been relatively quiet on the topic of transgendered youth. The US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has stated that Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which protects students from sex discrimination, also applies to transgender students. This allows transgendered students to file legal action in federal court should local authorities fail to protect them from discrimination and violence while at school. But the US Department of Education failed to provide specific examples of Title IX-prohibited discrimination or provide school districts with clear guidance on how to create trans-inclusive policies. Finally, the Obama Administration has been reluctant to push Congress to pass legislation that will protect transgendered youth, such as the Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Non-Discrimination Act.

Such laws and policies are desperately needed. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) youth are at increased risk of bullying, physical violence and sexual assault at school. In 2011, for instance, a survey conducted by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) found more than half of LGBT youth report being harassed at school. For transgendered students in particular, however, the problem is much much worse.

The National Transgender Discrimination Survey, a study of over 6,000 people, found that transgender and gender-nonconforming students experienced very high rates of harassment (78 percent), physical violence (35 percent) and sexual assault (12 percent). Alarmingly, a third of this harassment and violence occurred at the hands of teachers, staff and school officials themselves. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that many transgendered students drop out of school. Still more report having suicidal thoughts, and a quarter have attempted to take their own lives.

This is a tragedy of considerable proportion, one that can only be addressed by implementing and enforcing policies that prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity. That is what makes the recent vote by the Shenendehowa Board of Education so groundbreaking. But it is also what makes the acrimonious nature of the debate over this policy so disheartening.

When local news stations posted the story on their websites and Facebook pages, for example, a majority of the comments submitted online were in opposition to Shenendehowa’s new policy. Many people posted comments that made it clear that they did not understand the new policy. Others made rude statements that were based on ill-informed stereotypes of transgendered kids: that they are confused, that they need to see psychiatrists, that they should use the staff bathrooms, or that they are sexual predators who are only interested in seeing other children naked.

I’m chalking up most of the opposition to fear, ignorance and campaigns that falsely claim that students and staff will exploit these policies to use opposite-sex restrooms in order to sexually harass and assault other children. When California’s legislature was debating the School Success and Opportunity Act, which gave transgender students the same rights and protections covered by Shenendehowa’s new policy, the conservative Pacific Justice Institute invented a now discredited story about a transgender student harassing her peers in a Colorado school restroom. Similarly, when the town of Fayetteville, Arkansas was considering a law that prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity, reality TV star Michelle Duggar falsely claimed that the law would allow men “with past child predator convictions to claim they are female [and] use womens’ and girls’ restrooms, locker rooms and showers.“

Nothing could be further from the truth. Consider what is happening in California. In the year since they passed the School Success and Opportunity Act, not a single school district in that state has reported an instance of inappropriate behavior, harassment or physical assault stemming from the new law. The experience of the Shenendehowa Central School District is likely to be the same.

Kudos to the Shenendehowa Board of Education for standing up for the rights of transgendered kids. Now if the rest of the school districts in the US could do the same.

[This blog entry was originally presented as an oral commentary on Northeast Public Radio on December 4, 2014, and is available on the WAMC website. The contents of this post are solely the responsibility of the author alone and do not represent the views of the Bioethics Program or Union Graduate College.]

Striking the Balance Between Population Guidelines and Patient Primacy

by Susan Mathews, Bioethics Program Alumna (2014)

Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death among North American women. Although routine mammography decreases the risk of death by about 15 percent, research on the effectiveness of wide-scale screening programs shows that 2,500 people would need to be screened to prevent one cancer death among women ages 40-49. Given this, the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) updated its population guidelines in 2009 to advise against routine screening mammography for women under 50.

These new recommendations were met with controversy and confusion, with many questioned the ability of “experts” to weigh potential benefits and harms of screening for individuals.

But how should population data like this, along with other epidemiologic, social, psychological and economic factors, be considered in medical decision-making?

To read more, click here.

[This post is a summary of an article published on Life Matters Media on November 25, 2014. The contents of this blog are solely the responsibility of the author and do not represent the views of the Bioethics Program or Union Graduate College.]

Where Social Justice Fits in Medical Decision-Making

by Susan Mathews, Bioethics Program Alumna (2014)

The current healthcare reimbursement system curtails treatment choices for Americans by narrowing networks, imposing strict guidelines for coverage or setting deductibles that are so high as to restrict to care.  But what does social justice have to say about this issue?

Social justice implies fairness and mutual obligation in society. As members of a social group, we are responsible for one another. We should ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed in life. Ensuring equal opportunity of access to healthcare is part of that obligation, as being reasonably healthy is a basic necessity to succeed at providing for oneself or one’s family.

To read more, click here.

[This post is a summary of an article published on Life Matters Media on November 17, 2014. The contents of this blog are solely the responsibility of the author and do not represent the views of the Bioethics Program or Union Graduate College.]

Cheaper by the Dozen

by Sean Philpott-Jones, Director of the Center for Bioethics and Clinical Leadership

As a bioethicist, I appreciate the fact that the American public has become deeply engaged in a number of important health policy debates.

For example, should local, state and national agencies forcibly quarantine travelers coming from countries affected by the Ebola virus? Should public and private companies be required to provide employees with health insurance plans that include oral contraceptives if doing so runs counter to the religious beliefs of the owners? Should terminally ill cancer patient Brittany Maynard have the right to end her own life (which she did this past Saturday)?

One interesting story that slipped under the radar, however, was the recent announcement that two major corporations, tech giant Apple and social networking service Facebook, will now pay for female employees who want to freeze their eggs. These companies will cover the costs of extracting, freezing and storing eggs, even when this is done for non-medical reasons. This is a pretty substantial benefit, as the extracting the eggs can cost $20,000 or more. Storage fees can run an additional $1,000 a year.

This should be up for public discussion and debate. Although many people may disagree with me, I believe that these two companies (and those that follow their example) are making a big mistake. That is not to say that I don’t think that companies like Apple and Facebook shouldn’t provide coverage for fertility-related treatments like egg freezing as part of a comprehensive health insurance plan. They should, but only for medically justified reasons.

The technical name for egg freezing is oocyte cryopreservation, and it is a physically invasive and potentially risky procedure. Women must first take a cocktail of drugs called gonadotropins to hyperstimulate egg production, tricking their ovaries into producing a dozen or more eggs rather than one or two ova that are normally released during the normal monthly fertility cycle. Doctors then insert a long needle through the vaginal wall and into the ovary, sucking out the eggs and preparing them for long term storage.

As you might imagine, this is an extremely uncomfortable procedure. Most women experience bloating and abdominal pain, but more severe side effects are not uncommon. Nearly half of all women will experience a condition known Ovarian Hyper Stimulation Syndrome (OHSS), which may require hospitalization to treat the bleeding and severe fluid buildup that results. Errant needles can cause injury to the bladder, bowel and kidneys. Finally, the ovaries can develop scar tissue at the site of puncture or the drugs used for hyperstimulation can trigger early onset of menopause, resulting in infertility in both cases.

Moreover, while new techniques for freezing and storing eggs have improved to the point where over 90% of all cryopreserved oocytes survive the freeze-thaw process, far fewer of those eggs will lead to a successful birth via in vitro fertilization (IVF). According to the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology, for instance, the rate of live birth among women aged 30 who used cryopreserved eggs for IVF is less than 25%. That rate drops to less than 10% for women over 40.

These concerns – safety, efficacy, and potential physical risks — are why professional organizations like American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) only support the use of egg freezing when medically necessary. Egg freezing should be done only as a last resort to protect fertility in women undergoing ovary-destroying cancer treatment, for example, rather than as a way to delay childbearing as a matter of choice.

Unfortunately, the latter is exactly what companies like Apple and Facebook are promoting. Covering the costs of oocyte cryopreservation for non-medical reasons reinforces the idea that professional women must choose between having a fulfilling career and raising a family. Moreover, even if a woman successfully delays childbirth by freezing her eggs, she has only delayed the inevitable. She must still confront a corporate culture that sees mothers as an economic liability.

If companies like Apple and Facebook truly want to support their female employees, they don’t need to pay for egg freezing. What they need to do is provide both female and male employees with the services and benefits necessary for meaningful work-life balance, including paid leave for new biological and adoptive parents, family sick leave, and subsidized daycare and preschool programs. Better yet, they should use their wealth and political connections to lobby our leaders in Washington to make such benefits the law of the land.

Until then, we’re still leaving most working women (and many working men) out in the cold.

[This blog entry was originally presented as an oral commentary on Northeast Public Radio on November 6, 2014, and is available on the WAMC website. The contents of this post are solely the responsibility of the author alone and do not represent the views of the Bioethics Program or Union Graduate College.]

Fear and Loathing in Liberia

by Sean Philpott-Jones, Director of the Center for Bioethics and Clinical Leadership

Two weeks ago, I wrote a commentary decrying the current hysteria in the US over Ebola. It was ironic, I argued, that so many people were demanding the federal government take immediate steps to address the perceived threat of Ebola while simultaneously ignoring the real public health threats that we face.

A seasonal disease like influenza, for example, takes the lives of tens of thousands of Americans every winter. Still, far too many people refuse to get an annual flu shot. Similarly, outbreaks of preventable (and potentially deadly) diseases like measles, mumps and whooping cough are becoming more and more common as childhood vaccination rates plummet.

Moreover, the politicians and pundits calling on the Obama administration to take radical steps to combat Ebola are the same individuals who have repeatedly criticized efforts to combat the main causes of mortality in the US. Plans to tax junk food or limit the size of sugary sodas are seen as unwelcome government intrusions into the private lives of Americans, despite the fact that over 300,000 Americans die of obesity-related illness every year.

This isn’t to say that Ebola shouldn’t be a concern for public health officials in the US. I previously criticized both the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and US Customs and Border Protection for their initially tepid response to the crisis.

CDC officials, for instance, were slow to update guidelines for treating patients with Ebola, initially recommending a level of training and use of protective gear that was woefully inadequate. As a result, two nurses who cared for an Ebola patient in Dallas are now infected with the virus. Thankfully, these women are likely to recover.

The CDC has now released new guidelines for clinicians that are similar to those used by Doctors Without Borders, the charitable organization at the forefront of combatting the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. These guidelines, along with new screening procedures for travelers arriving from countries affected by the Ebola epidemic, make it even more unlikely that we will have a serious outbreak here in the US.

Unfortunately, our public response to Ebola is marked by ignorance, fear and panic. Parents of students at Howard Yocum Elementary School, located in a bucolic suburb of Philadelphia, recently protested the fact that two students from Rwanda were enrolled. Rwanda is a small East African country that is 3,000 miles away from the epicenter of the Ebola crisis, and has no reported cases of the disease. Nevertheless, frightened parents threatened to boycott classes. In response, school officials asked the parents of these two young children to “voluntarily” quarantine their kids.

What happened at Howard Yocum Elementary School is not an isolated case. A teacher in Maine was put on mandatory leave simply for attending a conference in Dallas, where the first US cases of Ebola were reported. A middle-school principal in Mississippi was suspended after returning from a family funeral in Zambia, another East African country located many thousands of miles from the heart of the Ebola outbreak.

Cruise ships have been put on lock down, subway stations closed, family vacations cancelled, and buses and planes decommissioned because of public fear about Ebola and the risks it poses.

The sad thing is this much of irrational fear is driven by xenophobia and racism. Since the Ebola outbreak began, over 4,500 people have died in West Africa. However, the mainstream Western media only began to report on the epidemic once an American doctor became infected. The level of care and treatment offered to infected patients from the US and Spain – including access to experimental drugs and vaccines – is also far greater what is provided to patients in affected countries.

Finally, African immigrants to the US are being increasingly ostracized and stigmatized, even if they come from countries unaffected by Ebola. Their kids are being denied admission to school, their parents denied service at restaurants, and their friends potentially denied entry to this country.

Many US politicians, mostly conservative lawmakers but also some progressive policymakers facing tough reelection campaigns, have called for a travel ban to affected countries in West Africa. This is despite statements from the World Health Organization, Red Cross and CDC that such a travel ban will be ineffective. This is also rather disproportionate compared with lawmakers’ reactions to past outbreaks of mad cow disease in England, SARS in Canada and bird flu in China. No travel bans were proposed in those situations.

Rather than fear West Africans, now is the time to embrace them. We could learn a lot from them. Consider the recent piece by Helene Cooper, a New York Times correspondent and native of Liberia. In that country, where over 2,000 people have died, few families have been left untouched by Ebola. At great personal risk, Liberians have banded together to fight the disease rather than isolating and ostracizing those who are sick. Unlike the average American, they are responding not with fear and loathing but with compassion and love. It’s time for us to do the same.

[This blog entry was originally presented as an oral commentary on Northeast Public Radio on October 22, 2014, and is available on the WAMC website. The contents of this post are solely the responsibility of the author alone and do not represent the views of the Bioethics Program or Union Graduate College.]