Intended for healthcare professionals


Contrasting ethical policies of physicians and psychologists concerning interrogation of detainees

BMJ 2009; 338 doi: (Published 30 April 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b1653
  1. Kenneth S Pope, independent licensed psychologist1,
  2. Thomas G Gutheil, professor of psychiatry2
  1. 1PO Box 777, Norwalk, CT 06856-0777, USA
  2. 2Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Harvard Medical School, Brookline, MA 02446, USA
  1. Correspondence to: K Pope kspope{at}
  • Accepted 23 December 2008

The treatment of prisoners held in prisons such as Guantanamo Bay is controversial. Kenneth Pope and Thomas Gutheil question whether the different stances of doctors and psychologists are justified

The professions of medicine and psychology share many ethical values, but their ethical policies differ sharply. The contrasting responses of physicians and psychologists in the United States to the interrogation of detainees provide a striking example and show the ethical challenges that confront all healthcare professions. The results of such decisions can affect the public interest, how a profession understands itself, and countless individual lives.

In the years since the 11 September terrorist attacks in the US, numerous articles have considered what forms of involvement, if any, are appropriate for physicians and psychologists in detainee interrogations in settings like Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanamo Bay detainment camp.1 In this article we take a brief look at the contrasting ethical policies adopted by physicians and psychologists in the United States regarding this controversy and consider some of the reasons for the differences.

Contrasting ethics policies

Physicians limited their involvement in detainee interrogations to such a degree that they prohibited even monitoring an interrogation with intent to intervene. Priscilla Ray, chair of the American Medical Association (AMA) council on ethical and judicial affairs, stated: “Physicians must not conduct, directly participate in, or monitor an interrogation with an intent to intervene, because this undermines the physician’s role as healer. Because it is justifiable for physicians to serve in roles that serve the public interest, AMA policy permits physicians to develop general interrogation strategies that are not coercive, but are humane and respect the rights of individuals.”2 At a press conference she elaborated that the statement should not be interpreted to mean that physicians could participate in developing rapport building or other strategies for individual detainees. …

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