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Should medical ethics justify violence?
  1. M H Kottow
  1. Correspondence to:
 M H Kottow
 Casilla 16168, Correo 9, Santiago, Chile; kottow{at}

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Medical ethics needs to be on its guard against those in military or political power who would seek to subvert its most basic tenets in order to serve their own ends

Emergencies and warlike situations often force medical personnel to follow orders and perform actions or duties pertaining to their field of expertise in flagrant violation of their professional code of ethics. Opposing such orders may be contextually impossible, or elicit unduly high personal costs. Medical ethics, while lamenting these impositions, is often reduced to passive and silent disagreement. In recent years, however, biomedical ethics has become active in accepting and supporting these estrangements from accepted standards and values of the healthcare professions, coming up with justifications of torture; suggesting non-treatment of the wounded, depending on their combatant status; prompting collaboration in the development of biological weapons, and disregarding informed consent.

Physicians’ participation in torture has been unanimously condemned and, although acknowledging that such conduct “is the result of the displacement of their medical vocation by the doctrine of ‘national security’”, such an “ideological substrate” has nevertheless been deemed untenable.1 Perpetrators were found to have committed their deeds in an ethical void2; this was recognised, but in no way did it serve to excuse physicians from the duty of opposing induced suffering and assuaging its effects to the best of their abilities.

Torture in its “humane” form has been defended on utilitarian grounds,3 using weak arguments that are unable to justify physicians’ active participation in torture. For the most part, professional ethics has remained adamant in its undaunted disapproval of medical non-therapeutic involvement in violent scenarios such as war, terrorism, and even torture. Nobody would have thought, in earlier times, that medical ethics could take any other position than to unrelentingly reject physicians’ participation in torture, …

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  • i “Corporate”, as used by London, is “the collective agent or the body politic” (London,7 p 21).

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