Ethics Rounds

APA's Annual Convention is a showcase for the field of psychology. This year in Washington, D.C., over 13,000 psychologists gathered to discuss, examine and debate all areas of our discipline. The convention program identified over 30 sessions as having an ethics component, and one of my most enjoyable and interesting responsibilities as ethics director is to attend as many of these sessions as I am able. The range of topics for the ethics sessions was impressive and more than could be covered in a single "Ethics Rounds" column. By virtue of this embarrassment of riches, my overview will focus on the APA Ethics Committee and APA Ethics Office activities.

On Thursday morning, the first day of convention, "The Ethics of Clinical Supervision" was standing room only. The panelists discussed informed consent to supervisory relationships, multiple relationships in training sites and supervisory competence in high-risk clinical situations. Later that morning, the leadership of APA's Div. 55 (American Society for the Advancement of Pharmacotherapy) held a panel "Ethical Challenges for a New Era: Prescriptive Authority for Psychologists." Panel participants explored the ethical aspects of an emerging area of psychology, that of prescription privileges, in an open and proactive manner that I hope will set the stage for many such future discussions as this area of psychology develops.

"Top Ten Ethical Challenges that Face State, Provincial and Territorial Psychological Associations" examined the role of ethics and ethics committees in psychological associations. Attendance at this session, like many other ethics sessions, far exceeded expectations, and what was planned as a small workshop quickly turned into a large group discussion as psychologists from numerous associations described and invited comment on the challenges facing their associations' ethics programs. The final ethics session for the day, "Multicultural Aspects of Ethical Research and Practice--Latinas and Their Families," was a lively and engaging look at the vitally important relationship between ethics, ethnicity and culture, with a focus on treatment and research with Latinas.

Friday morning again began early, at 8, and again with an ethics program that required additional chairs because of an unexpectedly large attendance. Our first session of the day was an annual meeting sponsored by the APA Ethics Office that provides state, provincial and territorial psychological associations the opportunity to discuss a specific area of their ethics-committee activities. This year's focus was on ethics consultation, and three associations--Minnesota, California and Kentucky--described the benefits and challenges of offering ethics consultations to association members and the public.

Later that morning the Ethics Committee presented as a group, "Top Questions Posed to the Ethics Office by Psychologists." The Ethics Committee demonstrated the process of thinking through an ethical dilemma by applying the process to questions that have come to the APA Ethics Office. This year's vignettes included a psychologist who wants to adopt a child she has come to know in a treatment context; a psychologist whose car has been stolen with patient records in the trunk; a psychologist who receives an expensive gift from a family from a very different cultural background than the psychologist; and a psychologist who is threatened with an ethics complaint for inappropriate socializing--eating lunch and shooting baskets in the university gym--with his graduate students. The Ethics Committee then teamed up with the APA Committee on Legal Issues for a two-hour program on law and ethics, "I Can See Clearly Now: Defining Legal and Ethics Duties." The two committees discussed a vignette in which a trainee in a psychology-law doctoral program found herself caught between competing and potentially conflicting legal and ethical demands. As an example, the trainee confronted a possible conflict when, working on a case referred for legal services and thus presumably falling under the attorney client privilege, she began to file a mandated report for child abuse.

The final program of the day, "Psychology, Behavioral Science and National Security," addressed the ethical aspects of psychologists' involvement in national security-related activities, including research on whether coercive interrogation techniques work. One panelist provided an overview of the report from the APA Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS), and those attending had an opportunity to share their perspectives.

Saturday both offered a full-day, continuing-education workshop, "Ethics and Law for the Practicing Psychologist," and afforded the Ethics Office the opportunity to introduce an invited plenary address, "Psychologists in the Courtroom: Opportunities and Pitfalls," a nuanced examination of legal, ethical and risk-management aspects of providing informed consent in forensic contexts. A Sunday morning program, "Critical Considerations in Clinical Training and Practice," took up a series of issues that face graduate students and young professionals, including how to incorporate ethics into their professional lives.

In addition to this very full convention agenda, two other events with great relevance to ethics took place. The APA Ethics Committee and the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students awarded the fourth annual graduate student writing prize to Juli Kramer, from the department of counseling psychology in the University of Denver College of Education, for her paper, "Ethical Analysis and Recommended Action in Response to the Dangers Associated with Youth Consumerism" (see page 16). This delightful awards ceremony, which Ms. Kramer's husband, two children and parents were able to attend along with members of her faculty, was followed by Ms. Kramer presenting her award-winning paper and a discussion of the paper by the Ethics Committee. Ms. Kramer's paper will be published in the journal Ethics and Behavior in 2006.

Finally, and centrally important to the ethics of APA and our profession, the Council of Representatives took action on the Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS) Task Force report. Council endorsed the recommendations of the task force and also stated emphatically "there are no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether induced by a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, that may be invoked as a justification for torture, including the invocation of laws, regulations, or orders" (see page 28). Council reaffirmed its 1986 Resolution against Torture, stated that credible evidence of ethics violations by APA members are to be referred to the Ethics Committee, and directed the Ethics Committee to review and make a recommendation concerning a proposed change to the Ethics Code. The proposed change addresses conflicts between ethics and law and would assure that psychologists follow only those laws that are "in keeping with basic principles of human rights" in situations where their ethical and legal obligations cannot be reconciled and psychologists choose to follow the law.

As director of the Ethics Office, I see our mission as being to push ethics to the center of our association's awareness. The goal is for our members and the profession to view ethics not as a set of external constraints that limit our possibilities and inhibit our creativity, but rather as part of the fabric of our professional lives, and ethical dilemmas not as a sign that something has gone wrong in our work but rather as reflecting the richness, complexity and importance of what psychologists do. If APA's 2005 Annual Convention is any indication, we're making excellent progress.

Further Reading

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Previous "Ethics Rounds" columns can be found at www.apa.org/ethics, in the "From the Director" section.