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PLOS BLOGS Speaking of Medicine and Health

When research is torture

I’m on a listserve that discusses many mundane issues that IRBs have to grapple with, but this week the listserve was grappling with something altogether more chilling – whether the CIA and medical professionals experimented on detainees to figure out “better” ways of torturing them.  As one listserve member observed “torture research”  …are not usually words one expects to see in the same sentence. The discussion was sparked by a widely reported – at least in the US – white paper circulated by Physicians for Human Rights, Experiments in Torture .

Reading the paper is not pleasant, but it would be hard to disagree with the conclusions that much of what was done was medical experimentation.  In one passage on waterboarding health professionals are directed to record “how long each application (and the entire procedure) lasted, how much water was applied (realizing that much  splashes off), how exactly the water was applied, if a seal was achieved, if the naso- or oropharynx was filled, what sort of volume was expelled, how long the break was between applications, and how the subject looked between each treatment.”

As a result of these investigations and  “based on advice of medical personnel, the CIA requires that saline solution be used instead of plain water to reduce the possibility of hyponatremia (i.e., reduced concentration of sodium in the blood) if the detainee drinks the water.”

The subsequent protocol for water boarding was known as “Waterboarding 2.0”;  further refinements included a special gurney so that detainees could be moved upright quickly, and the use of a liquid diet so that the detainees were less likely to choke or have an aspiration pneumonia should they vomit.

PHR concludes that the CIA was performing unethical human experimentation, and thus has called for the Obama administration to take a number of steps,  one of which is that “The secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services must instruct the Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) to begin an investigation of alleged violations of the Common Rule by the CIA and other government agencies as part of the “enhanced” interrogation program.”.

There has been much comment on these actions in the press, especially whether it is realistic or appropriate for PHR to involve the  Office for Human Research Protections.  However, this seems like a logical and sober step, in any civilised society where experimentation on humans, without their consent and for the sole purpose of inducing suffering in them and others is rightly reviled, and when human experimentation is otherwise so closely regulated.

When states behave outside the law, even in the name of pursuing “evil”,  citizens should be fearful but more importantly, be outraged. One mark of a civilised society is the use of normal processes against such actions. The US would go a long way to restoring faith internationally in its observance of human rights were it to  allow the Office for Human Research Protections to investigate the CIA’s actions.


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