Text Size: A A A
Article
The Tortured Patient: A Medical Dilemma Sometimes being complicit is the right thing to do.

Torture is unethical and usually counterproductive. It is prohibited by international and national laws. Yet it persists: according to Amnesty International, torture is widespread in more than a third of countries. Physicians and other medical professionals are frequently asked to assist with torture.

Medical complicity in torture, like other forms of involvement, is prohibited both by international law and by codes of professional ethics. However, when the victims of torture are also patients in need of treatment, doctors can find themselves torn. To accede to the requests of the torturers may entail assisting or condoning terrible acts. But to refuse care to someone in medical need may seem like abandoning a patient and thereby fail to exhibit the beneficence expected of physicians.

In this paper, we argue that this dilemma is real and that sometimes the right thing for a doctor to do, overall, is to be complicit in torture. Though complicity in a wrongful act is itself prima facie wrongful, this judgment may be outweighed by other factors. We propose three criteria for analyzing how those factors apply to particular cases of medical complicity in torture.

Torture is unethical and usually counterproductive. It is prohibited by international and national laws. Yet it persists: according to Amnesty International, torture is widespread in more than a third of countries. Physicians and other medical professionals are frequently asked to assist with torture.

Medical complicity in torture, like other forms of involvement, is prohibited both by international law and by codes of professional ethics. However, when the victims of torture are also patients in need of treatment, doctors can find themselves torn. To accede to the requests of the torturers may entail assisting or condoning terrible acts. But to refuse care to someone in medical need may seem like abandoning a patient and thereby fail to exhibit the beneficence expected of physicians.

In this paper, we argue that this dilemma is real and that sometimes the right thing for a doctor to do, overall, is to be complicit in torture. Though complicity in a wrongful act is itself prima facie wrongful, this judgment may be outweighed by other factors. We propose three criteria for analyzing how those factors apply to particular cases of medical complicity in torture.

Chiara Lepora and Joseph Millum, "The Tortured Patient: A Medical Dilemma," Hastings Center Report 41, no. 3 (2011): 38-47.