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Saturday 26th May 2018

Doctors shouldn't 'do' executions

14th March 2007

Recent investigations into the use of lethal injections for the death penalty in the United States have concluded that the condemned sometimes suffer pain so extreme that the process must be ruled unconstitutional, write Leonidas G Koniaris, Jon P. Sheldon and Teresa A. Zimmers in a commentary in The Lancet.


Lack of training and supervision of executions has led to bungled attempts to administer the injections, including the delivery of anaesthetic subcutaneously instead of intravenously, leading to chemical burns, extreme pain and progressive paralysis, instead of the promised painless death.

While Illinois and New Jersey are debating the death penalty itself, other states are looking at ways to 'fix' the delivery of lethal injections to make them more humane. For this, they need the help of physicians and other medical experts.

"Rather than the clean, clinical procedures they mimic, lethal injections are furtive affairs, characterised by the slipshod efforts of poorly trained personnel, with no monitoring for anaesthesia and no expert review," the trio says.

"As death-row challenges mount, others will probably follow suit and forcibly extend the long dark history of expert involvement in execution," they write.

They cite the example of Guillotin, a noted French physician of his time, now best known for his instrument of death; Thomas Edison, who helped a committee of physicians and a dentist to develop the electric chair; and the physicians who helped the Nazis develop lethal injections and gas chambers.

"Except for the Nazis, those involved invariably believed they were “fixing� the process and rendering execution more humane," they say.

The authors conclude: "It is an abominable perversion of the tools of healing."

"Participation by physicians and scientists in perfecting medical execution is morally wrong. Judicial or executive commandeering of medical tools and personnel to kill is also wrong. The expertise of doctors and biomedical researchers was developed by individuals, institutions, and science dedicated to saving and improving human lives. Appropriating that knowledge to kill is an appalling betrayal of the core values of medical research."


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