Doctors and medical ethicist discuss whether doctors should participate in capital punishment

Nov 02, 2007

Should doctors be involved in the state-ordered administration of capital punishment? In the September issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings, three anesthesiologists and a medical ethicist take an in-depth look at this question in a commentary and two editorials.

None of these articles debate whether capital punishment is justifiable. Instead, the authors explore the current position of the American Medical Association (AMA), which prohibits physician participation in legally authorized executions. Here are a few highlights of the arguments presented in these articles.

In a commentary article, David Waisel, M.D., an anesthesiologist practicing at Children’s Hospital Boston, Harvard Medical School, asserts that it is time to reassess the AMA’s position on this issue and allow doctors to participate in state-mandated executions to help provide the condemned a more humane path to death. Dr. Waisel cites numerous details about the technical problems associated with lethal injection, the form of capital punishment most commonly used in the United States today. Dr. Waisel reasons that doctors, possess the skills to administer the medications used in lethal injections in a manner that prevents undue suffering.

“If state administration of capital punishment is legal and ongoing, humane methods of execution should be sought and applied. It is honorable for physicians to minimize the harm to these condemned individuals and organized medicine has an obligation to permit physician participation in legal execution,” he writes.

Two editorials that follow Dr. Waisel’s commentary arrive at the opposite conclusion. In one editorial, William Lanier, M.D., editor in chief, Mayo Clinic Proceedings, and Keith Berge, M.D., who are anesthesiologists at Mayo Clinic applaud Dr. Waisel for “bringing forward this emotional issue so that it can be pondered and discussed by a broad audience.” But the authors oppose doctors’ participation in capital punishment, arguing that the Hippocratic oath that guides doctors prohibits medical professionals from assisting in executions.

“In the case of capital punishment, we believe that whatever theoretical good might emerge from a successful and well-executed judicial killing, there is certainly harm in causing the death of a person under a physician’s care,” say Drs. Lanier and Berge.

Drs. Lanier and Berge propose replacing the anesthesia-related drugs currently used in lethal injections with personnel and tools that are “clearly distinguished from representing medical care.”

In a second editorial, Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., a medical ethicist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, also argues against the participation of doctors in execution. Dr. Caplan asserts that a doctor does not have a duty to alleviate the suffering of a condemned person unless that prisoner has a previous medical relationship with that doctor.

“It seems a bit late for physicians to step forward in the context of an execution and say they are motivated by a duty of mercy given that many prisoners suffer miserably because of the poor state of prison-based medicine,” says Dr. Caplan.

Dr. Caplan also suggests that involving doctors in capital punishment may affect the overall moral standing accorded the practice of execution because “physician prestige and the respect afforded medicine are in part transferred to executions when physicians are involved.”

Dr. Caplan asserts that physicians are not needed to serve as executioners using lethal injection because “… governments and societies committed to execution using this technique can achieve this goal by properly training executioners.”

Source: Mayo Clinic

Explore further: Ebola scare boosts business for US company

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Security and the Internet of Things

Nov 18, 2014

An ever-increasing number of our consumer electronics is internet-connected. We're living at the dawn of the age of the Internet of Things. Appliances ranging from light switches and door locks, to cars and ...

Massive quake in southwest Pakistan kills 210 (Update)

Sep 25, 2013

Rescuers struggled Wednesday to help thousands of people injured and left homeless after their houses collapsed in a massive earthquake in southwestern Pakistan the day before as the death toll rose overnight ...

Recommended for you

Ebola scare boosts business for US company

13 hours ago

The Ebola scare has subsided in the United States, at least temporarily, but an Alabama manufacturer is still trying to catch up with a glut of orders for gear to protect against the disease.

Thai parliament votes to ban commercial surrogacy (Update)

21 hours ago

Thailand's parliament has voted to ban commercial surrogacy after outrage erupted over the unregulated industry following a series scandals including the case of an Australian couple accused of abandoning a baby with Down's ...

Doctor behind 'free radical' aging theory dies

Nov 25, 2014

Dr. Denham Harman, a renowned scientist who developed the most widely accepted theory on aging that's now used to study cancer, Alzheimer's disease and other illnesses, has died in Nebraska at age 98.

Mexican boy who had massive tumor recovering

Nov 25, 2014

An 11-year-old Mexican boy who had pieces of a massive tumor removed and who drew international attention after U.S. officials helped him get treatment in the southwestern U.S. state of New Mexico is still recovering after ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.