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Friday, October 1, 2021

The prisoner’s dilemma: The role of medical professionals in executions

Elisabeth Armstrong
Journal of Medical Ethics
Originally posted 7 Sept 21

Here is an excerpt:

Clinician Participation in Executions is Either Wrong or Misguided

Clinicians might participate in executions out of an inappropriate commitment to capital punishment; this position of leveraging medical education and credentials to punish or harm has no grounding in ethical conversation. It is entirely inappropriate to undermine trust in the medical profession in service of one’s political or philosophical beliefs – those ought to be relegated to the voting booths.

However, some practitioners might be present at an execution out of a well-intentioned, but misguided commitment to preventing suffering. Their reasoning is along the lines, “If states are proceeding with an execution, shouldn’t a clinician be present to ensure there is no undue harm or suffering?” Writing on lethal injections, Dr. Sandeep Jahaur writes in the New York Times, “Barring physicians from executions will only increase the risk that prisoners will unduly suffer,” in violation of the Hippocratic Oath and the 8th Amendment of the US Constitution. He points out that no ethics board would allow the testing of execution drugs on human participants, therefore, in the absence of a “controlled investigation” it is important that a doctor is present to assist when things go awry.

Dr. Jahaur adds that if doctors (or other clinicians) do not assist, people with less experience are often called upon to insert catheters, assess and insert the IVs, mix and administer the drugs, monitor a patient’s vital signs, then confirm death; and of course, step in if anything goes wrong. Dr. Atul Gawande agrees that it is unlikely that a lethal injection could be performed without a physician without the occasional tragic mistake. As recently as October of 2014, the lack of involvement from clinicians resulted in the administration of an incorrect drug to an inmate – resulting in forty-three minutes of writhing and groaning before he died.

The Case for Ending Practitioner Participation

There is no denying that these cases of suffering are disturbing and compelling. Ultimately, however, the bioethical case for participation is grossly outweighed by the case against it: medical involvement on any level intrinsically violates the ethical principles of autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence, and justice – compromising the foundations of the medical system. (Underline added.)