Will Bioethicists Support Hunger Strike Death? A response to Wesley J. Smith

by Jacob Dahlke, Bioethics Program Alum (MSBioethics 2012)

I came across a post from Wesley J. Smith at National Review Online regarding a recent ruling about force feeding prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. (Credit to Art Caplan for the tweet that brought this to my attention.) I would like to take some time and craft a reply to his question.

In short my position is this: Bioethicists ought not support the forced feeding of prisoners engaged in hunger strikes. Note that this does not directly answer Mr. Smith’s question, which is deftly written to bait someone who is opposed to his view into supporting the death of these prisoners. That is at best an inaccurate characterization of the opposing view. This is an attempt to more accurate characterize that view, with full acknowledgement that there is likely room for many disparate views.

Citizens, within the context of healthcare, are afforded particular rights with regards to medical treatments. One such right is that to refuse such treatments, a violation of which could constitute battery. There are landmark legal (and ethical) cases that highlight this right, most notably Nancy Cruzan and Dax Shephard. They provide a framework for discussing other persons, free or imprisoned, who decide to refuse medical treatments that may or will result in their deaths. The person at the center of this discussion, Jihad Ahmed Mujstafa Diyab, has an otherwise ambiguous role in American society.

To see Mr. Diyab as a prisoner – and thus eligible for a comparison to a prisoner in Kentucky who died following a purported hunger strike – ignores the fact that he has not actually been convicted of any crime to consider him as a criminal or felon. (It also ignores that the Kentucky death was not a clear hunger strike in protest, but rather a possible suicide or, even worse, a result of untreated mental illness.) Indeed, Mr. Diyab has not even been charged with any crime, he has only been detained (for an incredible 12 years). Were he charged, tried, and convicted, we would likely have a very different discussion on our hands. But this man is not yet a convicted criminal, so we are left to consider him ‘something else’. We must also leave Mr. Smith’s assertion that since Mr. Diyab is a criminal he is eligible to lose such rights as other convicted criminals, such as in the Kentucky prisoner death.

If we ignore all of the above, however, and presume that Mr. Diyab is actually a prisoner then we can ask what I assume is at the heart of Mr. Smith’s question: is a prisoner permitted to risk their health and potential life by undergoing a hunger strike? And, do medical ethical principles support the actions of the involved physician to treat only the symptoms associated with malnutrition and dehydration, fully aware that failing to treat the cause will eventually lead to death?

I will begin with the latter question. Mr. Smith wrote in a previous post that physicians who do not intervene to reverse the effects of the hunger strike are engaging in political activism, not medical ethics, and that “helping hunger strikers strike is not a doctor’s job.” He also writes that such an “intervention is only necessary because of self-inflicted harm and the feeding seeks to prevent death and destruction of health, not cause it. In this sense, it is not the same thing at all as a cancer patient refusing chemotherapy.” On this I  disagree. This implies several professional obligations of a physician, including:

  1. intervening in the health-altering behavior of a patient (“helping hunger strikers strike”, and the “destruction of health”). If this were actually a physician’s professional obligation, then physicians would be compelled to intervene to keep patients from knowingly risking their health and life from smoking cigarettes, eating high calorie diets, and leading sedentary lives. All three of these behaviors are known to put a person’s health at risk, albeit drawn out over a longer period of time than a hunger strike. Instead, I propose that the physician’s obligation in this case is to ensure that the patient is aware of all of the risks to their behavior, and to offer alternatives with better known benefits. To say that the physician decides that a patient with full autonomy is simply making the wrong choice and that the physician will instead make a ‘better’ decision on behalf of the patient smacks of paternalism.
  2. the prevention of death. While the avoidance of death can be celebrated as an outcome of medical interventions, it is only the byproduct of the underlying professional obligation of minimizing harms. It should be self-evident that minimizing harm can include avoiding death, but they are not synonymous. If they were identical, a single professional obligation, then the entire field of hospice and palliative care would not exist, since those professions (employed by physicians) do not seek to prevent death even though it may be a known prognosis, and instead it seeks to manage pain and other symptoms associated with the dying process.

Regarding the former question, regarding whether the rights lost by prisoners include that of medical autonomy, that should also be an irrelevant point since the status of the patient within the physician-patient relationship should not be a determinative factor. That is, a prisoner, detainee, or inmate should not receive an alternative level of care once that relationship has been begun, lest we begin a tiered system of patient and physician interactions.

Physicians that manage the health of detainees, whether on hunger strike or not, are working to maintain patient autonomy while still attempting to manage a balance between promoting patient benefits and minimizing harm. They are not engaging in political discourse; rather, they are simply doing their jobs as outlined by their profession.

[This blog entry was originally posted in a slightly different form on Mr. Dahlke’s blog on May 19, 2014. 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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