Should American doctors participate in executions?
6 May, 2017
Reproduced under Creative Commons Licence
The American state of Arkansas executed four prisoners in
April. They were given a lethal injection with a three-drug
cocktail, a procedure which requires some medical skills.
Should doctors take part in such executions?
The consensus amongst medical ethicists is No. The
American Medical Association insists that participation
violates a fundamental principal of medicine: do no harm.
However, many of the 31 states with capital punishment
require the presence of a doctor during the execution.
In an unusual intervention in the bitter debate,
cardiologist Sandeep Jauhar has written an op-ed in the
New York Times arguing that the presence of doctors is
The A.M.A.'s position is principled and respects a
long history of bioethics in this country. However, it
is not practical. States that do not require physician
presence typically use other medical professionals, such
as emergency medical technicians or paramedics, to
insert IV lines and possibly mix the drugs. Barring
doctors from executions will only increase the risk that
prisoners will unduly suffer ...
Discouraging physician participation, as the American
Medical Association does, will not lead to a ban on
capital punishment or lethal injection. If anything, it
will lead only to the reinstatement of more brutal forms
of execution that do not require medical expertise, such
as electrocution or death by firing squad. A few states have
already decided to use these methods as possible
Doctors have a duty to alleviate suffering. No one
would object to a doctor's providing comfort — spiritual
or narcotic — to a terminally ill patient at the hour of
death. It is not a stretch to think of death-row inmates
who have exhausted their appeals as having a terminal
disease with 100 percent mortality ...
Doctors can act as a safeguard against this
brutality. Participating in executions does not make the
doctor the executioner, just as providing comfort care
to a terminally ill patient does not make the doctor the
bearer of the disease.
It is interesting to note the parallels between the AMA's
rejection of cooperation with prison authorities and the
objections of Canadian doctors who say that they will refuse
to refer for euthanasia. Even though prisoners are being
killed against their will and euthanasia patients are not,
both procedures end in death. But the medical consensus is
that the former is right and the latter is wrong.
article is published by Michael Cook and BioEdge.org under a Creative
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