APA’s Council of Representatives voted to amend the association’s Code of Ethics to make clear that its standards can never be interpreted to justify or defend violating human rights.

The action, which came during the winter meeting of APA’s governing Council of Representatives, amended the code’s Introduction and Applicability section, as well as Ethical Standards 1.02 and 1.03, to resolve any potential ambiguity in the original language. These changes become effective June 1, 2010.

“APA’s longstanding policy is that psychologists may never violate human rights,” said APA President Carol D. Goodheart, EdD, announcing the changes. “These standards now unquestionably conform to that policy.”

The standards, from APA’s “Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct” (2002), address situations where psychologists’ ethical responsibilities conflict with law, regulations, other governing legal authority or organizational demands. Previously, it appeared that if psychologists could not resolve such conflicts, they could adhere to the law or demands of an organization without further consideration. That language has been deleted and this new sentence added: “Under no circumstances may this standard be used to justify or defend violating human rights.”

These amendments to the Ethics Code provide clear guidance to psychologists regarding their ethical obligations when conflicts arise between psychology ethics and the law or ethics and organizational demands.

An APA Ethics Committee task force last revised Ethical Standard 1.02 on conflicts between ethics and law in September 2001. The standard, which had been previously revised in 1992, had been criticized by psychology practitioners, particularly those in the forensics community. The 1992 standard said that when ethics and law conflict, psychologists should “make known their commitment to the Ethics Code and take steps to resolve the conflict in responsible manner.” Practitioners were concerned because at times judges, who were unfamiliar with psychology ethics, would order that clients’ raw test data and psychotherapy notes be submitted into legal proceedings. Judges had also made custody, visitation or supervision recommendations without first seeking appropriate evaluations. Psychologists said they were being placed in a conflict between ethics and law.

The task force had responded to such concerns by revising Standard 1.02’s language to say that if a conflict arises between ethics and law, psychologists should make known their commitment to the Ethics Code and seek to resolve the conflict. If that process was not successful, a psychologist had the option of following the “law, regulations or other governing legal authority.”

The language created a process for resolving a conflict between ethics and law but did not require a psychologist to violate a court order and thus risk being jailed or fined. The psychologist could, however, engage in civil disobedience, if he or she chose. The ethics task force approved the revision with minor edits and APA’s Council of Representatives adopted it in 2002.

That solution was called into question after Sept. 11, 2001, when the Bush administration used abusive interrogation techniques that it defended under the law. The question arose as to what a psychologist’s ethical obligations would be if they were ordered to engage in torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and whether Ethical Standard 1.02 could be used as a defense.

In response, APA’s council directed the Ethics Committee to draft language to make clear that the code offers no defense to human rights violations. After gathering member and public comment, the committee proposed, and the council overwhelmingly approved, the following amendments:

From the Introduction and Applicability section (underlined text has been added; strikeout text has been deleted):

If psychologists’ ethical responsibilities conflict with law, regulations, or other governing legal authority, psychologists make known their commitment to this Ethics Code and take steps to resolve the conflict in a responsible manner. If the conflict is unresolvable via such means, psychologists may adhere to the requirements of the law, regulations, or other governing authority in keeping with basic principles of human rights.

From Ethical Standard 1.02:

Conflicts Between Ethics and Law, Regulations, or Other Governing Legal Authority

If psychologists’ ethical responsibilities conflict with law, regulations, or other governing legal authority, psychologists clarify the nature of the conflict, make known their commitment to the Ethics Code and take reasonable steps to resolve the conflict consistent with the General Principles and Ethical Standards of the Ethics Code. If the conflict is unresolvable via such means, psychologists may adhere to the requirements of the law, regulations, or other governing legal authority. Under no circumstances may this standard be used to justify or defend violating human rights.

From Ethical Standard 1.03:

Conflicts Between Ethics and Organizational Demands

If the demands of an organization with which psychologists are affiliated or for whom they are working are in conflict with this Ethics Code, psychologists clarify the nature of the conflict, make known their commitment to the Ethics Code, and to the extent feasible, resolve the conflict in a way that permits adherence to the Ethics Code. take reasonable steps to resolve the conflict consistent with the General Principles and Ethical Standards of the Ethics Code. Under no circumstances may this standard be used to justify or defend violating human rights.

“These amendments are an emphatic statement that the Ethics Code does not offer a defense of following the law or organizational demand to a charge of violating an individual’s human rights,” Goodheart said.