Should doctors help administer lethal injections?

The ethical conundrum facing some physicians

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Here’s an interesting chart that compares the training necessary to become an executioner versus the training an anesthesiologist requires.




Now, it is a good thing that doctors get more training than, um, executioners. But the skimpy requirements for this most grisly of professions do raise some disturbing questions.

All 34 death-penalty states now use lethal injections for executions.

But there’s a catch. The people who know the most about the process of lethal injection—doctors, particularly anesthesiologists—aren’t usually the ones administering the drugs. The American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, the American Board of Anesthesiology, and the American Nurses Association all prohibit their members from assisting in executions. That leaves state officials, someone who has little training in anesthesiology or medicine, to administer the IV.

This afternoon, Texas is planning on executing Robert Campbell – the first since Oklahoma botched its execution of Clayton Lockett. That was hardly the first execution to go badly; the Death Penalty Information Center keeps a long list of botched executions. Included on that list is the story of Raymond Landry. In 1988 the Texas inmate was put to death by lethal injection, “two minutes after the drugs were administered, the syringe came out of Landry's vein, spraying the deadly chemicals across the room toward witnesses.”

Texas hasn’t changed its procedures for its executions. They are carried out at or after 6 p.m. Huntsville, Texas time with one lethal dose of pentobarbital. Unspecified members of "the drug team" inject the drugs, and a physician enters the death chamber when the execution is over, "to examine the offender, pronounce the offender's death, and designate the official time of death.”

But it makes you wonder about the ethical conundrum. Only about 20% of doctors belong to the AMA and some in the medical profession argue it would be better to have professionals more actively participate in administering lethal injections. On the other hand, there’s that oath to do no harm. What do you think?

UPDATE: The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has issued a ruling halting Robert Campbell's planned execution in Texas.

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