Under the American Psychological Association's (APA) code of ethics, animals have more protection than detainees, say experts on bmj.com today.
Kenneth Pope, an independent psychologist, and Dr Thomas Gutheil, a Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, maintain that the APA has enforceable standards that support the "humane treatment" of laboratory animals but that detainees who may be vulnerable or at risk are not afforded the same protection.
Given the controversy surrounding the interrogation of prisoners at sites like Abu Ghraib and GuantŠnamo Bay, the authors question whether the different ethical stances of psychologists and physicians are justified.
After 9/11, the APA changed its code of ethics which now runs contrary to Nuremberg principles and differs to how doctors operate, say the authors. The new code allows its members to set aside any ethical responsibilities that are in irreconcilable conflict with government authority, they say.
Whereas doctors should "not conduct, directly participate in, or monitor an interrogation with an intent to intervene, because this undermines the physician's role as healer", in 2005 the American Psychological Association adopted a policy that allowed consultation and monitoring of individual interrogations with the intent of intervening.
The differences between physicians and psychologists are partly historical, argue the authors.
While acknowledging the many admirable stances taken by the APA, the authors argue that one of the fundamental differences between physicians and psychologists is that physicians have the concept of "first, do no harm". They add that there were some reports that psychologists were not only complicit in America's aggressive interrogation regime but that they had actually designed tactics and trained interrogators.
Interrogation techniques linked to psychologists include hurting the detainee, using snarling dogs, using forced nudity, imposing long periods of standing, depriving detainees of sleep, using pornography and shackling detainees into painful "stress positions".
In conclusion the authors argue that no-one "regardless of professional discipline, specialty, or status - should be able to evade ethical responsibilities and escape personal ethical accountability by 'just following the law' or 'just following orders'..... history has shown what can result when professionals follow this kind of fallacious ethical reasoning."