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March 1, 2010
American Psychological Association removes infamous "Nuremberg Defense" from ethics code, leaves other ethics loopholes
By Stephen Soldz
The American Psychological Association recently removed a clause from the ethics code that provided ethics cover for Bush administration torture psychologists. However, they left in other problematic loopholes in the ethics code.
Last week, the American Psychological Association (APA) finally revised its ethics code so that it no longer contained the so-called "Nuremberg Defense," allowing dispensing with professional ethics when they conflicted with "law, regulations, other governing legal authority." This clause was added in 2002, at the heyday of the Bush administration. APA dissidents, retired military personnel, ethicists,and human rights advocates have long pushed for its removal.
A number of
military psychologists who served in or trained the Behavioral Science
Consultation Team at Guantanamo (BSCT) had opposed change in this code.
Not coincidentally, this section had been emphasized in the instructions
for the BSCTs and in the APA's report of the 2005 task force on Psychological
Ethics and National Security (PENS) where the APA let
military-intelligence psychologists create
ethics policy for the association.
The ethics code 1.02 has stated since 2002:
When the change goes into effect in June, this clause will essentially revert to the pre-2002 wording:
The removal should be a cause for celebration. However, like every change in APA's policies on psychologists providing interrogation support, this change is too little too late. APA leadership waited till over a year after the end of the Bush regime and its "enhanced interrogation" torture program before changing this clause which provided protection for psychologists aiding the torturers. While the Justice Department's OLC torture memos provided legal protection, the APA policy complemented that protection by providing protection from future charges that psychologists aiding detainee abuse violated professional ethics.
While the infamous 1.02 is gone from the ethics code, the less well known but equally disturbing section 8.05 governing research without informed consent is still there. It allows dispensing with informed consent, the bedrock of professional ethics, whenever "law or federal or institutional regulations" say it is OK:
Thus, research on detainees would be acceptable as long as institutional regulations (from the CIA or Defense Department, say) gave permission.
If the APA were really interested in removing loopholes in the ethics code, they would have changed this clause without prodding. I have been calling for change in this and another problematic research ethics clause for years. Unfortunately, the battle to remove loopholes in the ethics code allowing abuse will continue into the indefinite future.
Stephen Soldz is psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He is co-founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology and is President of Psychologists for Social Responsibility. He was a psychological consultant on two of the Guantanamo trials. Currently he maintains the Psyche, Science, and Society blog.