2008 APA Petition Resolution Ballot - Con Statement

In early June 2008, APA received a petition with the required number of signatures of full members in good standing concerning the issue of whether psychologists may work in certain settings that involve the detention of individuals.

A ballot mailing dated August 1, 2008 included the full text of the petition statement and the following con statement.

Robert J. Resnick, PhD

This Overbroad Petition Will Harm Vulnerable Populations and Put Ethical Psychologists at Risk

1. This petition seeks to prohibit APA member psychologists from working in settings that are inconsistent with international law and/or the US Constitution. The petition's “Be It Resolved” clause sets forth this prohibition even though a psychologist may adhere to all APA ethical standards, and despite the difficulty in determining whether a particular site meets the petition's ambiguous criteria.

2. The petition thus threatens to restrict the scope of practice for psychologists whose work in psychiatric hospitals, US correctional facilities, and countless other settings serves the public good each day.

3. The petition is unnecessary given APA's strongly worded Council resolutions against torture and concerted federal advocacy directed at the Bush administration and Congress.

4. The unintended consequences arising from a resolution prohibiting locations of employment rather than unethical behavior make this petition impossible for us to support. Many psychologists are employed in settings where constitutional challenges arise. Such settings include jails, prisons, psychiatric hospitals and emergency rooms, and forensic units. Likewise, many psychologists work in settings that could be considered inconsistent with international standards, for example, settings where the death penalty may be administered. The “Be It Resolved” clause potentially affects thousands of APA members.

5. While APA is clear that the petition, if adopted, is not enforceable, allegations that a psychologist was violating APA policy could arise in multiple venues (civil court; a licensing board; state psychological association, hospital, and other professional organizations' ethics committees). Especially given the petition's ambiguity regarding whether international standards and/or the US Constitution apply in a given instance, the petition places APA members doing good and ethical work in an untenable position of uncertainty regarding whether their practice is consistent with APA policy.

6. The clause “unless they are working directly for the persons being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights” would prevent psychologists in a prohibited setting from providing services to a person in psychological distress, since in most all settings psychologists work for the institution and not for the individual being held. Unlike the Ethics Code, the petition does not provide a way to resolve this ethical dilemma, i.e., between a prohibition from providing services and the need for services. (See e.g., Ethical Standard 2.02, Providing Services in Emergencies, allowing psychologists without the necessary training to provide services in emergent situations when other services are not available.) A psychologist who, in all good faith, assisted an individual in distress could nonetheless be in violation of APA policy.

7. The sponsors' good and noble intentions notwithstanding, for over two decades APA has held that torture is unethical and always prohibited. Five APA resolutions provide clear, explicit condemnations of torture. The last sentence of the 2008 resolution states: Psychologists are absolutely prohibited from knowingly planning, designing, participating or assisting in the use of all condemned techniques [Note: nearly two dozen techniques are enumerated] at any time and may not enlist others to employ these techniques in order to circumvent this resolution's prohibition. APA has stated emphatically: Following orders is never a defense to torture.

8. In August, 2007, the APA Council passed one of several resolutions condemning torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and punishment. Council expressed “grave concern over settings in which detainees are deprived of adequate protection of their human rights” and “affirmed the prerogative of psychologists to refuse to work in such settings.” Council noted that “APA will explore ways to support psychologists who refuse to work in such settings or who refuse to obey orders that constitute torture.” APA has called upon US courts to reject testimony resulting from torture or abuse.

9. APA has strongly and unequivocally condemned the abuse of detainees in letters to President Bush, Attorney General Mukasey, CIA Director Hayden, and members of Congress, and in articles in the media, and has urged the establishment of policies and procedures that fully protect the human rights of detainees, including judicial review of their detentions.

10. The petition seeks to prevent psychologists from working where the federal, state, or local government is acting wrongly. The precedent-setting nature of this petition, which restricts the settings in which psychologists may work, raises insurmountable concerns. A highly unfortunate side effect of the petition will be to place at risk APA members who serve vulnerable populations and behave in legal, ethical, and entirely moral ways. This petition harms the very groups it seeks to protect: Vulnerable populations and ethical psychologists.