As a psychologist, Steven Reisner believes his job is “to do good . . . to improve human welfare.”
Now, as a co-founder of the grassroots organization New York Campaign Against Torture, Reisner is pushing for the passage of legislation that would prohibit any licensed New York health professional from participating in interrogations or “improper treatment” of prisoners.
“Much of the Bush administration’s use of torture was guided and spread by psychologists,” Reisner said. “Health professionals are supposed to help people. They are not supposed to participate in undermining their physical or mental state. They are not supposed to use their specialized knowledge to cause people distress. That’s why I find this so reprehensible.”
If passed, the law — which advocates refer to as the anti-torture bill — would apply to both detainees held in connection with the war on terror and prisoners in the U.S.
Earlier this year, President Barack Obama released Justice Department memos detailing the harsh techniques, such as waterboarding and slamming detainees against walls, that were authorized after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and used at the Guantanamo Bay prison and other overseas detention centers. These techniques violate international and national law and are considered torture.
According to the legislation, the New York bill is guided by two basic principles: that “health care professionals shall be dedicated to providing the highest standard of health care, with compassion and respect for human dignity and rights,” and that “torture and improper treatment of prisoners are wrong and inconsistent with the practice of the health care professions.”
The legislation notes that “ordinarily there are limits on New York state’s jurisdiction relating to conduct outside the state or under federal authority. However, it is proper for the state to regulate health care professional licensure in relation to a professional’s conduct, even where the conduct occurs outside the state; certain wrongful out-of-state conduct is already grounds for professional discipline.”
The bill defines torture as “any intentional act or intentional omission by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from the person or from a third person information or a confession, punishing the person for an act the person or a third person has committed [including the holding of a belief or membership in any group] or is suspected of having committed or intimidating or coercing the person or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind.”
Under the law, health professionals would be barred from facilitating and participating in torture or improper treatment, examining, evaluating or treating a prisoner to certify whether torture or improper treatment can begin or be resumed, being present while torture or improper treatment is being administered, omitting indications of torture or improper treatment from records or reports and altering health care records to hide, misrepresent or destroy evidence of torture or improper treatment.
The legislation was proposed by Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, D-Manhattan, and Senator Tom Duane, D-Manhattan. It was proposed in 2008 but only recently picked up a sponsor in the Senate.
The bill has the support of the New York State Psychological Association.
‘Do no harm’
Jerry Grodin, a Saratoga County-based psychologist and president-elect of NYSPA, said he likes the bill for several reasons: “It codifies the ethical behavior already expected of psychologists, it protects folks who might be whistle blowers and its premise is that psychologists should do no harm. . . . There are no innocent bystanders in these situations. You must report what you know.
“This is something we applaud,” Grodin said. “We think it’s a wonderful bill.”
Grodin co-chairs NYSPA’s legislative committee, which reviewed the anti-torture bill.
Reisner and other psychologists have accused the American Psychological Association of dragging its feet on the issue of torture and even enabling the Bush administration.
Last week, an article criticizing the APA written by South Carolina psychologist Bryant Welch appeared on The Huffington Post Web site. He wrote, “We now know that psychologists helped design and implement significant segments of George Bush’s torture program. Despite their credo, ‘Above all, do no harm,’ two psychologists developed instruments of psychological torture. . . . Most remarkably of all, this whole process occurred under a protective ‘ethical’ seal from the American Psychological Association [APA], psychologists’ largest national organization. The APA governance rejected calls from its membership for APA to join other health organizations in declaring participation in Bush detention center interrogations illegal.”
The APA maintains that it does not condone involvement in torture. “It’s never permitted,” said Kim Mills, a spokeswoman for the organization.
In 2008, the APA adopted an amendment to a 2007 resolution on torture to more clearly express the organization’s anti-torture policy. The amendment outlines the techniques psychologists are barred from assisting — the list includes sexual humiliation, waterboarding and exploitation of phobias — and states, “Psychologists are absolutely prohibited from knowingly planning, designing, participating in or assisting in the use of all condemned techniques at any time and may not enlist others to employ these techniques in order to circumvent this resolution’s prohibition.”
But Welch said the APA is being disingenuous and the organization’s governing structure resisted fully implementing the anti-torture resolution passed by members.
Of the New York bill, he said, “It’s something that shouldn’t be necessary.”
The New York Campaign Against Torture is a coalition of health professionals, attorneys and human rights advocates.
Reisner ran for president of the American Psychological Association on an anti-torture platform but lost.
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