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MA and NY Legislation to Sanction Health Professionals Who Torture

Prisoners in a Guantanamo Bay Holding Pen

In the ten years since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, accounts of abusive interrogation practices implicitly approved by the US government have been widespread. The complicity of health care professionals has enabled these practices, and has ranged from failure to report ill-treatment of prisoners to direct participation in abusive interrogation techniques. Physicians for Human Rights has long stood against these practices and sought penalties for those professionals who participate in them as well as protection for those who refuse complicity.

Investigating policies and practices that result in health care professionals’ complicity in torture has been a central objective of PHR’s work for over two decades. Many of PHR’s health care professional constituents—over 5500 of whom reside or work in New York or Massachusetts—are leading national advocates for laws that reinforce US and international ethics bodies’ prohibitions on torture.

Bills are currently being proposed in the state legislatures of both Massachusetts and New York that would sanction health professionals who participate in the torture and ill-treatment of detainees. Physicians for Human Rights strongly supports the efforts of both Massachusetts and New York to end the participation of health care professionals in these abusive practices and has submitted Memoranda in Support of both bills:

Massachusetts bill H.2017/S.1011, proposed by State Representative Jason Lewis and State Senator James B. Eldridge, is titled An Act to Prohibit the Participation of Health Care Professionals in the Torture and Abusive Treatment of Prisoners. This bill will subject to professional sanctions any Massachusetts-licensed health care professional who participates in the torture or abusive treatment and interrogation of prisoners. It will also require health care professionals to report instances of torture or abusive treatment of prisoners, and provide protection for those professionals who refuse to participate in prohibited acts or who investigate them.

The New York legislation, proposed by State Assemblyman Richard Gottfried and State Senator Tom Duane, is titled An Act to amend the public health law, the education law and the labor law, in relation to prohibiting participation in torture and improper treatment of prisoners by health care professionals. Similar to the Massachusetts bill, it bars all health care professionals from participating in the torture or improper treatment and interrogation of prisoners, requires health care providers to report torture or improper treatment of prisoners to responsible authorities, and provides whistleblower protections for health care professionals who refuse to undertake prohibited acts and those who participate in investigations of lawbreaking.

Both bills’ prohibition against health care professionals’ participation in interrogations builds upon policies of major national and international health care professional associations, including the American Medical Association and American Psychiatric Association. By prohibiting participation in interrogations, the legislation establishes an important “bright line” that will protect health care professionals employed by custodial authorities from being assigned to participate in activities that could result in torture and improper treatment of prisoners.

This legislation is vitally important despite existing prohibitions on torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment in federal and international law. States, through their licensing power, have a unique ability to regulate their health care professionals’ conduct in custodial facilities.

It is appropriate that states regulate health care professionals’ conduct wherever it occurs because allowing state-licensed health care professionals to engage in abusive treatment that violates professional standards affects the interests of all patients of the health care profession in that state. Further, states have an ethical interest in protecting their reputations in the nation and the world by ensuring that their licensed health care professionals do not participate in activities that harm instead of heal.

The legislation being proposed by both Massachusetts and New York upholds the promise and challenge issued by President Franklin Roosevelt in his “Four Freedoms” address to Congress: "Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights or keep them."

Take Action:

>> Take Action, Massachusetts!
>> Massachusetts Legislation Against Torture
>> Hold New York Health Care Professionals Accountable for Torture