Earlier this month, the American Psychological Association (APA) voted almost unanimously to adopt a policy banning psychologists from participating in national security interrogations, including noncoercive investigations now conducted by the Obama administration.
“The vote followed an emotional debate in which several members said the ban was needed to restore the organization’s reputation after a scathing independent investigation ordered by the association’s board,” The New York Times has reported.
Psychologists are now barred from working at “Guantánamo, CIA black sites and other settings deemed illegal under the Geneva Conventions or the U.N. Convention Against Torture, unless they are working directly for the persons being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights,” according to a report by Democracy Now.
The final vote – which was 157-1, with six abstentions and one recusal – resulted in a standing ovation from APA members, as well as many in attendance, including anti-torture activists, some of whom wore T-shirts reading “First, Do No Harm,” a reference to the Hippocratic oath.
Fordham University Center for Ethics Education Director Dr. Celia B. Fisher, who has previously addressed human rights issues with psychologists’ involvement in death penalty assessments, weighs in on the APA’s new policy:
“The most recent APA ban on psychologists’ involvement in national security interrogations makes clear that psychologists’ ethical duties supersede their legal obligations when their activities contribute in any way to a violation of human rights,” Dr. Fisher explained.
In addition, Dr. Fisher, who chaired the 2002 revision of the APA’s Ethics Code and is author of Decoding the Ethics Code: A Practical Guide for Psychologists, now in its third edition, has called for the end of psychologists’ involvement in death penalty evaluations.
“This [new APA policy] brings the field’s moral compass in line with the UN Convention Against Torture and Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is time to do the same for psychologists’ involvement in death penalty cases, an inequitable legal process that lethally violates the human rights of defendants in capital cases,” Dr. Fisher stated.
In May 2013, Dr. Fisher addressed these ethical issues in a blog post entitled, “Are Psychologists Violating their Ethics Code by Conducting Death Penalty Evaluations for Defendants with Mental Disabilities?”
Some have argued that psychological assessment is neutral and does not determine whether a judge or jury will sentence a prisoner like to death. However, given the current flaws, psychologists’ contribution to legal decisions concerning competency and predictions of future violence hearings places the defendant at the mercy of an imperfect and unjust system.
Even as Americans continue to disagree on whether the death penalty in itself violates human rights, the unwarranted and inequitable killing of innocent persons by their government is a flagrant violation of the basic rights of individuals to life and liberty. It is time for psychologists to consider whether the APA Ethics Code prohibition against activities that justify or defend violating human rights applies to forensic psychologists conducting evaluations that contribute to an inequitable correctional system whose inconsistencies lethally violates the human rights of innocent persons.
For more information on the ethics of psychologists’ involvement in death penalty evaluations – particularly for defendants with mental disabilities – read Dr. Fisher’s blog post in its entirely, or her 2013 article in Ethics & Behavior entitled “Human Rights and Psychologists’ Involvement in Assessments Related to Death Penalty Cases.”