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Is rectal feeding an actual modern medical practice?

One of the more dramatic findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s interrogation practices in the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks is that some uncooperative detainees were subjected to “rectal rehydration” and “rectal feedings.”

Former CIA Director Michael Hayden, who served under former President George W. Bush, on Thursday strongly defended the practice as a “medical procedure.”

But doctors dispute that. They say the practice is almost never used, that it’s humiliating and not the best way to rehydrate a patient.

“That was a medical procedure that was done because of detainee health,” Hayden insisted on CNN.

Hayden claimed that in each of the five instances the practice was used “for the health of the detainee, not part of the interrogation program, not trying to soften him up for any questioning.”

The Senate report, which Hayden derided as not “an objective observer,” noted on p. 488, in one instance: “According to CIA records, Majid Khan’s ‘lunch tray’ of hummus, pasta with sauce, nuts, and raisins was ‘pureed’ and rectally infused.”

Dr. Howard Markel, a medical historian at the University of Michigan and contributor to the NewsHour, questions the practice.

“It’s almost never done,” he wrote to the NewsHour in an email. “There are so many easier and more effective ways to hydrate or feed a patient.”

Thomas Burke, an emergency doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital who teaches at Harvard Medical School echoed that in an interview with the Washington Post.

“For all practical purposes, it’s never used,” Burke said. “No one in the United States is hydrating anybody through their rectum. Nobody is feeding anybody through their rectum. … That’s not a normal practice.”

The practice dates back to the 18th and 19th Centuries, Markel noted.

“During the Civil War, nurses tried to feed injured soldiers that way,” he said.

But it’s considered very rare today.

“It’s annoying and humiliating to have it done to you,” Markel wrote, adding, “If the fluids you are infusing into the rectum and colon are not the right balance of electrolytes, etc., your bowels could violently — and painfully — expel the contents all over you and the floor.

“Speaking as a physician, there is no place [for this] in medical treatment today. It’s a barbaric way to feed, let alone rehydrate anyone in the 21st Century.”

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