Physicians and Torture Medical Teshuvah for a Profession in Need of Healing

TESHUVAH, or repentance, in the Jewish tradition, is most often practiced during the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but is, in fact, appropriate at all times. While doing my own personal work in this regard, I was led to turn my attention to my profession, that of medicine and health care.

Emry Layton /

Since the revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib, and most recently, since the US Senate Intelligence Committee on Torture made public its report in December 2014, physicians have spoken out against the role of doctors in the implementation of torture. It is a sensitive issue for the profession, and most physicians are aghast at such obvious trespass of the most basic standard of medical ethics, to “do no harm.” They see themselves in a moral and ethical universe wholly apart from that of those doctors who have actively participated in torture.

An example of this sentiment appeared in an article by George Annas and Sondra Crosby published in the New England Journal of Medicine, in which the authors seek to understand how physicians could overcome their professional inhibitions and “evolve” into active participants in torture at CIA “black sites.” They suggest that physicians complied because they were assured by lawyers that they “had immunity from prosecution and would not be held legally responsible for violating US and international law against torture.” A solution, the authors suggest, is that lawyers support doctors in the maintenance, and not in the violation, of ethics.

While such an alliance may be constructive, I do not believe it strikes at the underlying dynamic that allows doctors to participate in torture. Rather, I believe that my medical colleagues and I do, in fact, inhabit the same world as those physicians complicit with torture. Further, I suggest that we are so caught up in the daily requirements of our work that we do not see the slippery slope of declining ethics upon which we stand. It is the responsibility of our own profession to address these problems and to heal ourselves.

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