Court-initiated medical treatments raise important questions as to the rights of prisoners, the powers of judges, and the ethical obligations of physicians. Although convicted criminals have fewer rights and protections than other citizens, being convicted of a crime does not deprive an offender of all protections under the law. Court-ordered medical treatments raise the question whether professional ethics permits physicians to cooperate in administering and overseeing such treatment. Physicians have civic duties, but medical ethics do not require a physician to carry out civic duties that contradict fundamental principles of medical ethics, such as the duty to avoid doing harm.

In limited circumstances physicians can ethically participate in court-initiated medical treatments. Individual physicians who provide care under court order should:

  1. Participate only if the procedure being mandated is therapeutically efficacious and is therefore undoubtedly not a form of punishment or solely a mechanism of social control.
  2. Treat patients based on sound medical diagnoses, not court-defined behaviors. While a court has the authority to identify criminal behavior, a court does not have the ability to make a medical diagnosis or to determine the type of treatment that will be administered. When the treatment involves in-patient therapy, surgical intervention, or pharmacological treatment, the physician’s diagnosis must be confirmed by an independent physician or a panel of physicians not responsible to the state. A second opinion is not necessary in cases of court-ordered counseling or referrals for psychiatric evaluations.
  3. Decline to provide treatment that is not scientifically validated and consistent with nationally accepted guidelines for clinical practice.
  4. Be able to conclude, in good conscience and to the best of his or her professional judgment, that to the extent possible the patient voluntarily gave his or her informed consent, recognizing that an element of coercion that is inevitably present. When treatment involves in-patient therapy, surgical intervention, or pharmacological treatment, an independent physician or a panel of physicians not responsible to the state should confirm that voluntary consent was given.
AMA Principles of Medical Ethics: I, III

Code of Medical Ethics: Professional Self-Regulation

Visit the Ethics main page to access additional Opinions, the Principles of Medical Ethics and more information about the Code of Medical Ethics.

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