Monday, February 22, 2010

Force Feeding Hunger Strikers - Right or Against One's Rights

A hunger strike is a method of non-violent resistance in which participants fast as an act of political protest in order to bring attention to an injustice. Many nationalities, including Sri Lankans, Cubans, Tibetans, and Americans have used hunger striking as a form of protest in the past, with the tradition being most prominent in the Irish, especially in the last century with Irish Republicans (a group of whom memorably went on a hunger strike in 1981 that claimed the lives of 10 Irish Republican prisoners in Northern Ireland) using the tactic to combat British hegemony. Individuals have begun hunger strikes for many different reasons, from political to financial to personal, but the most notable cause in the recent past were to protest the inhumane treatment of people in detention (which also served to shed light on the cause that imprisoned them in the first place) which include the startling strikes we have seen in the past 30 years in Guantanamo Bay, Turkey, and Ireland (

In response to this peaceful form of protest, and documented almost as long as the practice of hunger striking has been in existence, has been the practice of force feeding these protesters. Depending on your point of view, this technique is either used to A) save the strikers’ lives or B) to mediate the publicity and empathy garnered by the protest. However, many deaths have been documented from the act of force-feeding just as there have been deaths caused from the starvation due to the hunger strike itself. Currently, this controversy over force feeding is at the forefront of American politics and social consciousness due to the confirmation of the practice being used on hunger strikers at Guantanamo Bay; and more disturbing, that this act was deemed to be compliant with Geneva conventions on the treatment of detainees which bar “humiliating and degrading techniques” by the Bush administration (per the Walsh report). Many in the political, medical, and human rights world were outraged over these revelations (

This outrage is due to the fact that there is little doubt that hunger striking is a form of peaceful protest (Gandhi is included in the list of people who used this method as a form of nonviolent resistance), and that force feeding, regardless of whether it is “saving” a life, falls under the definition of “cruel and unusual” as it is both involuntary, violent, undignified, and not something done under normal circumstances (a determination agreed upon by the medical community). In defiance of its own laws, however, the US continues to claim that force feeding is not only legal but should be considered a humanitarian act, as doctors are intervening in order to save a life. A February 23rd forum “Hunger Strikes and Physicians” at the Boston University School of Public Health plans to weigh in on this topic. Far less an expert then those on the panel, but certainly a competent adult who knows right from wrong, cruel from necessary, and dignified from demeaning, allow me to weigh in on the legal, moral, and precedent setting historical facts which should lead to the conclusion that force feeding is not a humane, much less legal, way to treat a peacefully protesting prisoner, much less an illegally held, uncharged and untried detainee (also illegal under the US system of law…but that is a separate debate).

First, taking the morality of any “life saving” justification out of the debate (which is what we should do as in America laws should not legislate morality) we are left with a clear consensus: Legally, Americans past and present have already weighed in on this issue of protest (especially in regards to peaceful protesting) and amelioration. This right to protest is covered in the US constitution (Freedom of Assembly-1st Amendment) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR-Article 20, of which the US is a signatory) as is the right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment (8th Amendment of the US Constitution and Article 5 of the UDHR). Additionally, the United States Supreme Court “in Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Department of Health, "assume[d]" that a competent person has a constitutionally protected right to refuse life-saving hydration and nutrition” also of which “a majority of the Justices separately declared that such a liberty interest exists.” So while never specifically addressing the issue of force feeding, and drawing the line at legally condoning one’s active participation in a suicide, the US Supreme Court reached the conclusion that refusing nutrition is the same as refusing other forms of medical treatment (a human right in the US) and thus reaffirmed the legality of passively allowing someone to die.

Those who are in the position of saving lives (and who have an intricate code of ethics which defines what falls within their right to do) have also weighed in and agree. The World Medical Association recently revised its once qualified position on hunger strikes and physician’s role in force feeding to definitively state that "force feeding is inhuman and degrading treatment” (Article 21, Other medical groups such as Doctors without Borders, American Medical Association and the New England Journal of Medicine also see the practice as degrading and inhuman, as do human rights groups such as the International Committee of Red Cross.

Filtering into an argument based on morality is our well defined value system and our very nature as humans: As humans, free will is what defines us from other animals and as adults, if we chose to put our life in danger for a cause, whether that is in the act of war or in protest of injustice, we should have that choice. As Americans, freedom of choice and protest is what forged this nation from its inception and on to circumstances over 200 years later surrounding such topics as abortion and the debate over same sex marriage. In his 1941 State of the Union address US president Roosevelt called for the protection of the "essential" Four Freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom from fear and freedom from want ( Thus, as history shows, for Americans (and most humans), right to protest and be free of fear is integral to our national consciousness and disrespecting it is akin to disrespecting our integrity as a nation.

This is not to diminish the moral and emotional issues at hand. Allowing anyone to die is unconscionable to most, right, left and center. And certainly, the emotional turmoil for the families, community, and individual going through the hunger strike is unimaginable. But this is not the point. The point is, in the US we have the right to protest, to be treated with dignity even in captivity, and to refuse medical treatment, and we have signed international treaties stating just the same. Force feeding someone is simply not legal or justifiable any way one spins it. Furthermore, the motives the decision makers at Guantanamo Bay have in promoting force feeding as a viable amelioration to hunger strikers must be called into question as being far from moral, charitable, or humanely based considering they continue to disregard the fact that the prison system they created is itself illegal under American law.

Some of President Obama’s most controversial and lauded campaign promises were to close Guantanamo Bay within a year and end the practice of torture. Obama was sworn in on January 20th, 2009, over a year and a month prior to the date of this writing. Guantanamo still remains open and the debate over whether force-feeding competent hunger strikers amounts to torture and flies in the face of our laws, international treaties, and our way of life still rages. When something is so black and white and whose underlying rationale is interwoven so tightly within our nation’s foundation, I should simply let one of our founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, have what I think should be the final word on this debate…”Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.”

Written by Melissa Mongogna, 2/21/10

1 comment:

Ryan said...

These are good reasons to let protesters, even detainees, hunger strike. But we must treat convicted criminals differently from ordinary people. Ordinary people can refuse treatment or commit suicide because that’s their right. If they prefer suffering and perhaps dying through protest, we must let them because their life is theirs. But convicts lack that right. They can’t choose protest and death over their punishment. If we recognize their right to choose outcomes they prefer that interfere with their sentence, then forget letting them kill themselves – we should also let them leave prison.

The First Amendment protects prisoners somewhat, but we deny them speech that spares them their sentence. We don’t let a prisoners peaceably assemble in front of City Hall or express their religion by visiting Jerusalem. Nor should we let them protest by dying.

MSF and the AMA condemn force-feeding because they want what’s best for their patients. They’re right, and those who call force-feeding humanitarian are wrong. But prisons aren’t humanitarian and shouldn’t give prisoners what’s best for them. They should give prisoners exactly what they deserve. Nothing better – in this case death, which they prefer. And nothing worse either, like torture. Force-feeding may look like torture, but unless we mean it as such, it’s no more so than restraining an inmate who cuts himself or tasing one jumping the fence.