UN report reframes bioethics as anti-torture ethic

Michael Cook
9 March 2013
Reproduced with Permission

A new United Nations report frames number of bioethical questions as issues of torture, giving a new twist to a number of controversial issues. The UN special rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, an Argentinian human rights expert, presented a report on torture and health care to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva this week. "Medical care that causes severe suffering for no justifiable reason can be considered cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and if there is State involvement and specific intent, it is torture," Mr Mendez warned.

In his report he lists a number of medical issues which could be regarded as are "tantamount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment."

These include: withholding pain treatment, involuntary psychiatric treatment, denial of methadone in jails, denial of access to abortions after rape, forced genital-normalizing surgery, involuntary sterilization, unethical experimentation, and forced intimate medical examinations.

One section is sure to spark controversy in the United States. He says that "reparative therapies" or "conversion therapies", when enforced or administered without the free and informed consent of the person concerned, could be regarded as torture. Requiring transgender people to undergo surgery as a condition of changing their legally-recognised sex could also be regarded as torture or degrading treatment.

"The preceding examples of torture and ill-treatment in health-care settings likely represent a small fraction of this global problem. Such interventions always amount at least to inhuman and degrading treatment, often they arguably meet the criteria for torture, and they are always prohibited by international law...

"The duty to provide remedy and reparation extends to all acts of ill-treatment, so that it is immaterial for this purpose whether abuses in health-care settings meet the criteria for torture per se."