When Law and Ethics Collide — Why Physicians Participate in Executions

By Atul Gawande / New England Journal of Medecine 354(12), 1-13., on 1 January 2006

Evidence from execution logs showed that six of the last eight prisoners executed in California had not stopped breathing before technicians gave the paralytic agent, raising a serious possibility that prisoners experienced suffocation from the paralytic, a feeling much like being buried alive, and felt intense pain from the potassium bolus. This experience would be unacceptable under the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. So the judge ordered the state to have an anesthesiologist present in the death chamber to determine when the prisoner was unconscious enough for the second and third injections to be given — or to perform the execution with sodium thiopental alone.The California Medical Association, the American Medical Association (AMA), and the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA) immediately and loudly opposed such physician participation as a clear violation of medical ethics codes. “Physicians are healers, not executioners,” the ASA’s president told reporters. Nonetheless, in just two days, prison officials announced that they had found two willing anesthesiologists. The court agreed to maintain their anonymity and to allow them to shield their identities from witnesses. Both withdrew the day before the execution, however, after the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit added a further stipulation requiring them personally to administer additional medication if the prisoner remained conscious or was in pain. This they would not accept. The execution was then postponed until at least May, but the court has continued to require that medical professionals assist with the administration of any lethal injection given to Morales. This turn of events is the culmination of a steady evolution in methods of execution in the United States.

  • Document type Article
  • Countries list United States
  • Themes list Lethal Injection,