Hunger Games: Guantanamo Bay

by Theresa Spranger, Bioethics Program Alumna (MSBioethics 2012)

Guantanamo Bay is back in the news.  It seems that several of the inmates are currently participating in a hunger strike that began in February of this year.  It was started to draw attention to the camp and make a political statement that it should be closed as President Obama promised it would be during his 2008 campaign.

The hunger strike started with just a few prisoners and has expanded to over 100 of the 166 detainees.  About 45 of them have lost a significant amount of weight and require forced feeding to keep them alive.

So, what does “forced feeding” entail exactly?  Twice each day the prisoner is restrained at the hands, feet, and head, in a chair, a feeding tube is inserted into the stomach though the nose, and a protein shake (Ensure, or the like) fed to the prisoner through this tube.  The process can take up to 2 hours per person, per feeding.  With 45 people on feedings, each twice a day, this is no small operation for the Guantanamo Bay medical staff.

Some activist groups consider the forced feedings to be torture.  To back up their claim they look to the world of medical ethics.  The World Medical Association and American Medical Association, among other organizations, accept that patients have the right to refuse life sustaining treatment, including tube feedings.  This has been established through cases like that of Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman in a vegetative state whose story made headline news in the early 2000s.

Reprieve, a human rights group, recently released a video of Hip-hop artist/actor, Yasiin Bey (also known as Mos Def) undergoing the same forced feeding procedure that is happening in Guantanamo Bay.  In the video, Mr. Bey is unable to complete the procedure and it is stopped before the tube is even completely lowered into his stomach.  For much of the 4 minute video he is seen screaming and crying in an orange jumpsuit while being restrained in a chair, with people in white lab coats attempting to place the tube in his nose.  He continues to scream and struggle, until an off screen voice tells them to stop the procedure.

The video was made to illustrate the painful nature of the forced feeding procedure; the group considers the procedure a form of torture and has openly called for the feedings to be stopped.  The tag on the Reprieve website is, “Reprieve delivers justice and saves lives, from death row to Guantanamo Bay.”   Given their current argument about the forced feedings I find this tag line to be ironic.

It seems Reprieve has missed a major memo, so let me break it down here:

If we stop the forced feedings and the prisoners still refuse nourishment, they WILL die!

So, the question becomes: can you live with that?

If you will please look to the left of our military you will see a rock and to the right a hard place…now choose.

The military defends their decision to pursue the forced feedings saying they don’t allow suicide by any other means, so they choose not to allow it in the form of starvation.  I understand their position and that they are trying to prevent the loss of life.

My personal feelings however, are against the forced feedings.  Not because they are torturous or painful, though I’m sure the procedure is less than pleasant.  I am against them because I think our military and our country are being manipulated by the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.  They stop eating and what has been the American reaction?

  • The New York Times printed an editorial about the horrors of Guantanamo Bay in a prisoner’s own words.
  • We discuss how the forced feedings could interfere with Ramadan, therefore violating the prisoners’ right to freedom of religion.  (Side note: The feedings are currently being performed at night to respect the religious traditions of the prisoners.)
  • Human rights activist groups, like Reprieve, take up the cause and renew the fight for the camp to be closed.

I don’t think the men of Guantanamo Bay actually want to die the miserable death of starvation, but rather they have found a captive audience for this new game of theirs.  If the feedings continue the hunger strike will never end.  The only way I can see to convince the men to start eating again is to let them see their decisions play out in some of their comrades.

I understand that my opinion is probably not a popular one, I don’t even like it myself to be honest, but what choice do we have?  Many will certainly say, “Close Guantanamo Bay…there is your choice.”  To them I say:

Whether you choose to believe it or not, there is a reason these men are being held in Guantanamo Bay and a reason that our current President, like the last one, has not closed the facility.

[This blog entry was originally posted in a slightly edited form on Ms. Spranger’s blog on July 15, 2013. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the author alone and do not represent the views of the Bioethics Program or Union Graduate College.]

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