Prof. Asa Kasher.
Prof. Asa Kasher. Photo by Kobi Gideon/BauBau
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Medical experiments may be carried out on soldiers on condition that the experiment contributes "to building the military force," declares leading ethicist Prof. Asa Kasher in an opinion for court obtained by Haaretz. Kasher, who authored the Israel Defense Forces Code of Conduct, and who was a member of the committee that permitted anthrax experiments on Nahal Brigade soldiers, maintains that this is "a great distortion of my position."

Despite his years of work for the military, Kasher was appointed an objective expert by the Lod District Court in a petition served by 18 former paratroopers against the army in 2008. The petition relates to an incident in the early 1970s. According to the plaintiffs, their induction into the paratroops was conditioned on participating in a nerve gas experiment, which failed at its first stage when it was conducted on animals.

According to the former soldiers, the experiment was held contrary to all standard ethical conduct. Earlier this month the Walla! website reported that the court adopted a mediation proposal and each plaintiff will receive NIS 36,000 and the case will be closed.

Kasher, a Tel Aviv University professor, presented his ethical opinion on the issue in February this year. In his view, medical experiments on soldiers are desirable and even justified. Kasher declared that "the participation of soldiers in compulsory or reserve service in medical experiments in the military framework must be carried out in consideration of building the force or considerations of activating the force. In the circumstance of a medical experiment, only considerations relating to building the force can be taken into account. The aim of a medical experiment must be for the soldiers' benefit."

Kasher's opinion examines the justification of asking soldiers to endanger their lives in order to immunize them from greater dangers in the future. "It is permitted to endanger soldiers on the condition that this is to save human lives," he wrote. "In the dilemma between values and human life, from a certain aspect, with responsibility and professionalism on one side and human life on the other, it can be decided in favor of one side and endanger the lives of soldiers."

Kasher also wrote that there is no moral prohibition from hiding secret details about an experiment from soldiers. "It could be that certain aspects of the medical experiment are secret, based on considerations of national security. It is better that the enemy will not be familiar with the army's abilities and it's points of weakness," he wrote.

"Some details of an experiment may be hidden from soldiers who have to decide whether to participate in it," he continued. "Secrecy does not harm the principle of free consent."

The issue of experiments carried out on IDF soldiers first made headlines in 2007, when it was revealed that between 1998 and 2006 experiments were carried out on soldiers to help a develop a medicine against anthrax. Many soldiers suffered various side effects and sued the state.

Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, via attorney Michael Sfard, petitioned the High Court of Justice to immediately halt all medical experiments in the IDF. After more stringent guidelines were adopted regarding such experiments, the petition was eventually dropped. Kasher was a member of the committee that initially allowed the experiments. A commission of inquiry later set up by the Israel Medical Association found serious flaws in the experiment.

Kasher rejected all the accusations raised in this article, noting that anyone interested in reading his opinion can write to him at asa.kasher@gmail.com.

"In my opinion I check the legitimacy of medical experiments on soldiers in terms of medical ethics, the ethics of conducting such experiments and military ethics," he said. "Each aspect is a necessary condition for permitting such experiments. None of them is sufficient on its own. Only all of them together are enough. The demand for military ethics is one of many demands. There is no truth to the claim that if it is fulfilled it is permitted to conduct an experiment. This is a great distortion of my position." Kasher also noted that "during the 1980s conducting such experiments on civilians was also considered. I participated in that debate. No such experiment was approved, and this has nothing to do with the case before the court, in any respect."