Israeli Ethics Council Opposes Bill to Force-feed Hunger Strikers

The proposed law could be imposed for political reasons, warn critics.

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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Palestinians celebrating the deal ending prisoner's hunger strike in Ramallah.
Palestinians celebrating the deal ending prisoner's hunger strike in Ramallah.Credit: Reuters
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

The Israel National Bioethics Council is opposed to a bill that would allow hunger-striking prisoners to be force-fed. The council, which met in December 2013 to discuss the ethical aspects of the bill, which is being promoted by the Public Security Ministry, published its recommendations this week.

“The council has determined that the proposal that a judge can order forced feeding based on some consideration other than safeguarding the life of a hunger-striker, goes against the principles of bioethics, and must be utterly rejected.”

Last month the Public Security Ministry published what is known as a “law memorandum,” a preliminary format of legislation prior to publication of a bill. The Justice Ministry, the Health Ministry and the Israel Prison Service were also involved in its formulation. The bill, which is expected to move ahead in the coming Knesset session, would enable both force-feeding a prisoner as well as giving prisoners medical treatment against their will, under certain restrictions.

According to the bill, only the president or vice-president of a district court can make the decision that such treatment can be given. Prisoners would have the right to legal representation during hearings on the matter. The bill also states that the court would not order treatment, but rather could approve the possibility that treatment might be given against a prisoner’s will. Moreover, physicians cannot be forced to carry out treatment that goes against their conscience.

Despite these restrictions, the bill has encountered powerful opposition by groups including the Israel Medical Association and Physicians for Human Rights. These organizations argue that such a bill goes against every international medical ethics convention, which views force-feeding as torture.

Israel Medical Association chairman Leonid Eidelman said that if the bill passes he will call on all physicians to refrain from carrying out the procedure in order to safeguard human dignity.

Health Ministry deputy director general Boaz Lev raised the issue with the bioethics council, of which he is a member, last year. Fourteen of the 17 committee members voted against approving the legislation.

The council said that a special law relating only to hunger-striking prisoners ran the risk of being imposed for political reasons, and that no special law was needed, because treatment of occasional hunger strikers is sufficiently covered by the 1996 Patient’s Rights Law, which also strikes a balance between the sanctity of life and an individual’s right to autonomy.

Treatment of any hunger-striker, not necessarily prisoners, who become so ill they must be hospitalized is dealt with by a clause in the Patient’s Rights Law, which under certain circumstances allows a physician to make decisions not in accordance with a patient’s will.

Ziv, of Physicians for Human Rights, expressed satisfaction with the council’s decision, noting that the bill is tainted with political motives. “The sanctity of human life as presented in the bill is no more than lip service and it is certainly not the sanctity of human life that is at the forefront of their minds,” she said, referring to the framers of the bill.

The Health Ministry responded that it stressed the rights of hunger-striking prisoners, and the medical, ethical and judicial oversight of any decisions made in this matter. The ministry also said the bioethics council had made its recommendations based on a preliminary form of the bill, which has now been disseminated so the public can also respond.

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