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March 2, 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:

If psychologists' ethical responsibilities conflict with law, regulations, or other governing legal authority, psychologists make known their commitment to the Ethics Code and take steps to resolve the conflict. If the conflict is unresolvable via such means, psychologists may adhere to the requirements of the law, regulations, or other governing legal authority.

When the change goes into effect in June, this clause will essentially revert to the pre-2002 wording:

If psychologists' ethical responsibilities conflict with law, regulations, or other governing legal authority, psychologists clarify the nature of the conflict, make known their commitment to the Ethics Code and take reasonable steps to resolve the conflict consistent with the General Principles and Ethical Standards of the Ethics Code. Under no circumstances may this standard be used to justify or defend violating human rights

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:

Psychologists may dispense with informed consent only (1) where research would not reasonably be assumed to create distress or harm and involves (a) the study of normal educational practices, curricula, or classroom management methods conducted in educational settings; (b) only anonymous questionnaires, naturalistic observations, or archival research for which disclosure of responses would not place participants at risk of criminal or civil liability or damage their financial standing, employability, or reputation , and confidentiality is protected; or (c) the study of factors related to job or organization effectiveness conducted in organizational settings for which there is no risk to participants' employability, and confidentiality is protected or (2) where otherwise permitted by law or federal or institutional regulations. [emphasis added]

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.

Submitters Bio:
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.