To me this seems like a no-brainer, but, hey, it takes all kinds. The current Supreme Court case regarding lethal injection brings up several points relevant to medicine (another discussion of which is available in the New England Journal of Medicine—my take is somewhat more…direct)…
Here’s the scoop: doctors have no business taking part in executions in any way whatsoever. It really is that simple. Doctors can ethically support the death penalty as citizens (I don’t), but participation violates the fundamental precepts of our profession.
The problems are thus: lethal injection is complicated. It involves several steps, each of which can go wrong. First, a barbiturate is administered to sedate the patient. This is done for humane reasons. Next, a paralytic is injected. This is done to ease the discomfort of those witnessing the execution. The idea is horrific. To kill someone in the name of the state is serious business. If it disturbs us, perhaps we need to rethink the whole idea, but giving the prisoner a drug to make us feel better and to potentially make him suffer more is abhorrent. After that, potassium chloride is injected. This burns like hell, but not for long—the pain of the injection is quickly overtaken by the pain of your heart stopping.
If the sedative is administered incorrectly, steps one and two leave a paralyzed person, unable to breathe but fully conscious, who then can feel the potassium injected.
If the potassium is injected incorrectly, it may injure the tissue around the IV, causing extreme pain, without killing the patient. If too little potassium is given, the pain can endure for a long time.
The whole process is brutal, which is where the doctor comes in. To ensure each step of the process goes correctly, a medical professional is needed. A good anesthesiologist or CRNA could easily do it. But to do so would ethically disqualify them from ever practicing again. They will lose their souls as physicians.
Some have argued that since the condemned is to die anyway, it is a doctor’s duty to ensure it is painless.
Bullshit. If a doctor is required, then his participation is what allows the execution, making the doctor the moral equivalent of an executioner.
I don’t agree with the death penalty; I think it’s useless and barbaric. I can, however, understand those who do support it. But I cannot abide any health care professional who participates, and neither should you.