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Is it medically ethical to force-feed Guantanamo detainees?

May 1st, 2013
06:21 PM ET

By Samuel Burke, CNN

There’s a life-and-death tug-of-war going on between President Barack Obama and more than 100 prisoners who would rather die than stay alive forever at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.

Nearly all of the inmates there have never been charged with a crime.

Twenty-three detainees and counting have lost so much weight that they are being force-fed.

A doctor's code is "do no harm," but it is also to respect the autonomy or the independence of the patient.

That’s according to world-renowned bioethicist Arthur Caplan of the NYU Medical Center. 

“A patient has a right to say no to all medical treatments. We've established that again and again and again in the U.S. Think about Terry Schiavo,” Caplan told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Wednesday.

“These patients are prisoners, but they don't want it,” Caplan said. “So the balance is, I think, don't treat them when they say ‘no’ and don't disrespect their right to refuse.”

RELATED: Why has Obama abandoned his Guantanamo pledge?

A military spokesman previously told Amanpour that this is common practice at American hospitals, but Caplan contends that is only on very sick people and it usually only happens once, not over and over again like it is in Guantanamo.

“Even in a hospital with a very, very ill bedbound patient, they often try to pull the tube out; they don't like it. It's not comfortable. So let's not kid ourselves,” Caplan said. “This is a tough, tough way to eat.”

Many argue that we don’t allow people to kill themselves, but Caplan described the circumstances as “political protest,” not a suicide attempt.

“It's a statement by prisoners, which goes all the way back to the Irish hunger strikers against the British, saying ‘I can't live in these conditions. I don't accept the terms of my sentence that I'm under here. This is inhumane to me. This is the only way I have to speak up.’”

Caplan has been forced-fed, so that he could experience the process firsthand.

He described it as a “rough” procedure and said it feels much worse for someone who’s not complying.

“You feel that sensation like you're drowning as the stuff is poured down your throat,” he said. “You can bring the food back up. If that happens, you're bound and gagged. Now you're starting to aspirate, as we say, take into the lungs. “

“I know there are [people] out there, thinking, ‘I don't care if they hurt these prisoners,” he said. “The point of principle is we don't want to see a principle established that the government can go around making you accept medical treatment that you don't want, even if you are a prisoner. It's a bright line."

READ MOE: Guantanamo at a boiling point


Filed under:  Guantanamo • Latest Episode
soundoff (34 Responses)
  1. muiuiu

    So these men haven't been charged with any war crimes in a court of law, rather, convicted in the court of public opinion is SHAMEFUL, The anger this has caused worldwide has ramifications. i.e. Boston bombing, and anti american hatred. just remember when a US solider is beheaded in the hands of the enemy. No trial, but punishment. dont complain about it. suck it up,,

    May 1, 2013 at 6:45 pm | Reply
    • croco3

      And if they had no beef with the USA, now they REALLY do!
      So, for a detention facility aimed to stop or deter terrorism, it's ironic that Guantanamo has risen to provide a tangible justification for terrorism against the US!
      (Not that terrorism could be ever be justified, but if the US could justify Gitmo, then anything can be justified!)

      May 1, 2013 at 7:04 pm | Reply
      • kme

        The actions of Bush and Obama and the majority of congress have encouraged terroist activities on American soil. I find it nearly unbelievable that they can be in positions of leadership and be so ignorant at the same time.

        May 2, 2013 at 1:09 am |
    • Maupie

      Amazing that a country which want to spread democaracy and freedom fof speech is using these methods

      May 2, 2013 at 8:29 am | Reply
    • E Holder

      I don't know why we are feeding them at all. Let them try cannibalism for a bit . . . yum Muslim mutton!!

      May 3, 2013 at 8:35 pm | Reply
  2. Jason281

    Why are we force feeding them? If they want to die, so be it.

    May 1, 2013 at 8:51 pm | Reply
    • pieter

      yeah but they also want to be free...

      May 2, 2013 at 6:41 am | Reply
  3. Saleem Hatoum

    Can someone disclose the age group these prisoners are in...youngest to the oldest!

    May 1, 2013 at 10:03 pm | Reply
  4. J.D.

    Ask the Irish. ... if these people wish to die, and they LET them, the consequences are tremendous for the US goverment. Please let them go and be heroes wherever they may be from. . If they die , they win. We don´t want them to win.. Please let´s not forget that they wiil be assured their 73 virgins if they die in marhtyrdom. So all square.

    May 1, 2013 at 10:35 pm | Reply
    • J.D.

      BTW, long live Eiire and Euskadi (the Basque Country). Amanpour.

      May 1, 2013 at 10:43 pm | Reply
    • Rebecca

      Do justify their detention. "Nearly all of the inmates there have never been charged with a crime." How is this okay? How do they want to be heroes in "their own countries? It is very possible that some are being innocently detained–how is this okay? It seems as though now in America, where I am from, you guilty until proven innocent. They don't even need to proof to detain you and that detention is now indefinite.

      May 2, 2013 at 5:49 am | Reply
    • Rebecca

      Also: 72 virgins is a MYTH. Not all Muslims believe this. Look it up.

      May 2, 2013 at 5:50 am | Reply
    • Rebecca

      Do not justify their detention. "Nearly all of the inmates there have never been charged with a crime." How is this okay? How do they want to be heroes in "their own countries? It is very possible that some are being innocently detained–how is this okay? It seems as though now in America, where I am from, you guilty until proven innocent. They don't even need to proof to detain you and that detention is now indefinite.

      May 2, 2013 at 5:51 am | Reply
  5. richard

    i was think, that you are independent honest journalist Christiane but i was wrong, i have question to you about Boston bombing, beyond fact of crime, is there hard evidence that this two guys did it, video of this guys is not any evidence in my opinion, second question, did you see, video what CNN show, before catching suspects, guy surronded by police he was naked and walking, was putting in police car, it was far but guy look like older suspect, CNN never again show this video and nobody make any comment, who this guy was and why was taking by police naked, just before kiling older suspect

    May 1, 2013 at 10:41 pm | Reply
    • Jane

      it seems like another conspiracy theory to me.... they must show how did they figure out both brothers did plant the bombs from a marathon crowd.

      May 2, 2013 at 7:11 am | Reply
  6. Pynshisha

    If they don't want to have a life imprisonment let them have their own Capital Punishment. They are bound by laws and different sorts of principles. Isn't that bad to be fed through the nose as long as you live. The prisoners choose it that way. What about Irom Sharmila an iron lady of Manipur who's fighting for the repeal of the draconian act of India AF(SP)A, nasal feeding for the past 11 years? She choose for a fast to death but the Govt force her to consume liquid through the nose. She lives, she looks pale of course but she write books arrange protest and so on. She's on the way to become a legend of fighting against unlawful act of the authority...

    May 2, 2013 at 12:59 am | Reply
    • Jane

      dont forget, their are not proven guilty yet.

      May 2, 2013 at 7:12 am | Reply
  7. D'evil

    I do not understand why they want to force feed them to keep these people alive? If they don't want to eat, then let them starve. If these.people want to starve to death, let them. Don't forget, these are bad dudes. It is better they are dead. It solves all the problem of keeping them in Guantanamo.

    May 2, 2013 at 3:43 am | Reply
    • roamingrock

      Whatever happened to the "Like" button. Here have 10 Likes.

      May 2, 2013 at 8:56 am | Reply
    • Dawn

      If they starved, the skeletal remains would be too reminiscent of what happened to wrongly confined human beings in Auschwitz. And 'good people' would have to start to ask themselves too many uncomfortable questions.

      May 4, 2013 at 7:06 pm | Reply
  8. muiuiu

    Gitmo is an illegal jail sanctioned by US government and not recognized by UN, European Union or our allies.
    It houses 'supposed' terrorists, who will never a lawyer, a jury of their peers, or get a fair trial. This is the what Gitmo is all about. US has setup numerous off the record tribunal courts in areas of conflict, handed guilty verdicts without any rationale or explanation..

    It's no wonder why people around the world hate US.. Simple solution. Mind your own business, and let other countries work out their own problems..

    May 2, 2013 at 7:27 am | Reply
  9. H. B.

    Obama is faced with another no-win situation with Gitmo. He wanted to close it starting his first day in office. The fact that he didn't means that the situation is one of lose-lose, not just for him, but for the American people.

    The Bush regime started Gitmo. The prisoners were captured, mostly during armed conflict. They were known to be enemy combatants, or those who work with them toward the same goals. Rather than put them on trial, which is what should have happened, the Bush regime used torture to get intelligence on the enemies over there (Afghanistan and Iraq). They also wanted military courts to try, convict and sentence them. Military courts don't have the same stringent rules and protection of rights that the civil courts have. So getting convictions would have been easy.

    The military court solution was not proper. They had to be tried in civil courts.

    There was ample evidence against most of these detainees. And they were violent people. When some were set free, they promptly went back to their terrorism and jihading, often as leaders.

    We know this will happen with most of the detainees, if they're just set free. Obama can't just set these people free, so they can bring more terror to our people.

    Fly in the ointment: Evidence. Our laws are VERY clear about this: if evidence is obtained through torture, it is INADMISSIBLE in a court of law. Virtually ALL the evidence against the detainees, which was enough, originally, to get them convicted, is no longer able to be used in trying them. The result of a trial would have to be an acquittal. (A verdict of "not guilty," for those who don't understand that word.) They'd then have to be set free.

    They were incarcerated by the Bush regime, with no consideration given to how we'd go about getting convictions, because they assumed they could get them for all the detainees, if they're tried in military courts. The trials were NOT important to the regime. Getting information out of them was. So they used torture.

    Now we have all these detainees that we don't dare try, because they'll go back to the terrorism first chance they get. We can't set them free. We can't try them and even dream of getting any convictions in the absence of evidence.

    What would YOU do?

    It's called being between a rock and a hard place. That's why Obama didn't close Gitmo during his first week in office.

    Can you blame him for not wanting to set loose a big bunch of terrorists to return to planning attacks on America?

    Keeping them at Gitmo puts an onus on Obama. He's willing to take that onus onto himself, for the safety of the American people. If he wasn't willing, he'd just turn them loose.

    He could close Gitmo tomorrow. And what would the American people have to say when dozens of terrorists are free to terrorize us again?

    If any of you are so smart, what is YOUR solution to this conundrum? What would YOU do – that you would willingly take responsibility for?

    It's easy to mouth off. It's another thing entirely when the safety of the American people is at stake.

    Frankly, I don't know if there can be any solution to Gitmo that isn't horrific. Meanwhile, yes, we should force-feed these maggots. Technically, after all, they were taken during wartime. That war is not yet totally ended. Until it is, there is at least SOME basis for keeping them incarcerated. The best route is to try them, of course. But with no evidence that is usable in court? Better to just set them free than try them, where the only possible outcome is acquittal.

    Yes, it was an illegal system of incarceration of war criminals, or even "enemy combatants," but the illegal aspects of Gitmo were all those of Bush's regime, not Obama's. He's only left with the Augean Stables to try to clean up after them.

    May 2, 2013 at 8:09 am | Reply
  10. RW

    The prisoners are there because they have information on other people who have killed hundreds and they refuse to talk, that is a crime, as they will continue to kill. They are dangerous! I think they should be made to talk or killed or let go depending on the situation.

    May 2, 2013 at 8:57 am | Reply
  11. Ioannis G.

    If there is indeed evidence that these people have been involved in acts of terrorism, why not present the evidence before a judge? It has been repeatedly reported that US was paying several thousand dollars per head to the pakistanis for handing in alleged terrorists. Does it take a rocket scientist to see through this travesty? US is the only NATO country that systematically ignores international law and shows complete disregard for human rights. The world, our planet, is in dire need for a second pole, a new NATO outside the US umbrella. US has degraded into a nation that systematically exports war, violence and destruction. The rest of the world must respond and bring some balance because we all are slipping towards a psychopath's reality...

    May 2, 2013 at 9:13 am | Reply
    • I'Sheet M'drawz

      Really funny stuff...why not book a conference room & have some lattes delivered & open a dialog with these people.

      These people want to KILL US!

      WHY? Because we are infidels, that's it.

      Get used to the idea of having the 'sand people' wanting to kill US because we're infidels.

      May 3, 2013 at 11:27 am | Reply
  12. Billy Qaeda

    Try introretrogestion .

    May 3, 2013 at 11:18 am | Reply
  13. Adel Seghir

    If Obama ordered Gitmo closed, and in the end it did not happen, then Obama isn't running the show – it's that simple. So the question is, who's running the show. Who's in charge? Obviously, CNN isn't interested in the answer.

    May 4, 2013 at 3:13 pm | Reply
  14. Dawn

    Ethics? Guantanamo 'prison' should not even be in existence in this so called enlightened age.
    I thought humanity decided long ago that concentration camps were a bad idea? That they lead to the kind of human excesses that we are reading about now. Makes one wonder what is not being said or in the public domain. Perhaps the camp does explain one of the questions that emerged after WW2: How could the killing camps happen amidst 'good' people, who suspected something and did nothing? It happened because the good people were afraid, and in fact, believed everything they were told about the 'enemy', who could no longer be seen as simply human as they were.

    May 4, 2013 at 7:02 pm | Reply
  15. Shervin

    The real question is......is the prison it's self ethical? If you have the answer to that then you have the answer to your question :-) have a nice day.

    May 5, 2013 at 2:24 am | Reply
  16. paddysingh

    American tried to bring in US style democracy in Afghanista, and end up giving bales of tax payers monet in cash to Karzai. Then it turned to democratise Iraq and left the devil Malliki in Saddam's place who basically is a puppet of Iran. Now it wants to topple Assad, and hand over the country to militants just as they literally made possible the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power in Egypt. Then there was Libya, which is a country no more. In all these countries Al qaeeda never existed, except in Afghanistan and today, thanks to US policy, they have spread throughout the MIddle East. Now through their abuse of human rights, the Gauntanamo detainees will one day turn on America. Is there any logice to what the US does and has done in the past?

    May 5, 2013 at 12:52 pm | Reply
  17. cranky john

    Hunger strike is a personal issue these people are terrorists let them die from hunger if this what they wish UNLESS they are hiding useful info then force feed them untill they tell and force them to watch as their friends die in agony They are not choir boy material

    May 5, 2013 at 5:40 pm | Reply
  18. jaysonrex

    The Islamic terrorists must be delighted with all the kerfuffle that Guantanamo is generating. People know nothing about the 'affair' but throw opinions around like they were in the know. As Commander-in-Chief, Obama must decide what is best for the American people – 9/11 and Boston attacks (apart from many others) duly considered. It is true that the President promised in the heat of the campaign to close down Guantanamo but subsequent knowledge made such project 'undesirable'. This should have been the end of the story – except that for political reasons it is not. I am against forced-feeding those inmates but if this is what the Administration decided to do then there must be a reason. And the citizenry must accept it or pay the price. In the world war between Islam (and ideology equal to Nazism rather than a religion) and the civilized nations, there can be no appeasement. None. WE SHALL NEVER SURRENDER!

    May 6, 2013 at 12:42 am | Reply
  19. Ranchero Assala

    @jaysonrex thanks for reminding folks the burdens of a Leader, which is timely. Our leaders who have menkind's heart carry awful burdens. Remember the saying "uneasy lies the head that wears the crown". Even at community level Leaders have special burdens. I sincerely ask those commenting here if they know the threats facing their country? If they know how to prevent/catch a terrorist before they kill? How to ration food for the whole nation(some countries)? Have you ever been in an awful position to choose who has to die because of limited resources? Do you know the stress of having to control naughty/silly adults? Who knows the heartbreak of having to care for someone who wishes you dead? So please let us be gentler and respectful to Leaders starting in our homes, communities, countries.
    Coming back to the topic i acknowledge that i tend to be swayed by both sides of the arguement but in the final analysis i think we should look at the root cause/s that have led to this hard and tragic situation. It goes beyond Guatanamo and killer Islamists! In the meanwhile we should pray that the clash of religions and civilisations doesn't become messy and large scale confrontational. Yes Godly PEACE is Good for everything in this world. Its something to be encouraged not feared.

    May 6, 2013 at 10:17 am | Reply
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