Our justice system is embroiled in controversy in recent years, over a procedure that a majority of Americans support: the death penalty. Older methods, including firing squad, electric chair, or gas chamber, have been supplanted by lethal injection. This is thought to be more humane, and therefore less in conflict with the Eighth Amendment proscription of “cruel and unusual punishment.”
But the use of lethal injection has brought with it a whole new set of issues, as revealed by several “botched executions” in recent months. In Ohio last January, Dennis McGuire’s execution took 25 minutes, called by one defense attorney “a failed, agonizing experiment.” In April, Clayton Lockett’s lethal injection procedure by Oklahoma officials lasted 43 minutes, and only ended when the condemned suffered a massive heart attack.
Most Americans support the death penalty in the United States, though the margin has become much smaller in recent years. In 1996, 78% were pro-death penalty; in 2013, that had dropped to 55% (Washington Post). This is a huge shift in public opinion, and these recent events may have a further impact.
In response, there has been a renewed call for physicians to get involved. After all, properly applied professional medical judgment could ensure that the condemned prisoner is truly unconscious before injecting agents to stop the heart or suppress respirations. This would greatly reduce fears of violating Eight Amendment safeguards. A recent legal committee on death penalty reform has recommended that “Jurisdictions should ensure that qualified medical personnel are present at executions and responsible for all medically-related elements of executions” (source).
But this is a truly dangerous recommendation. For over 2400 years, the Hippocratic tradition in medicine has expressly forbidden participation in killing, and this violates the codes of ethics of both the American Medical Association and the American Nurses Association. Even the practice of assisted suicide is forbidden in both codes, and at least that has the goal of relieving suffering.
No, healthcare professionals should strongly resist this idea, and refuse to have anything to do with state-sanctioned killing. Regardless of concerns about the comfort of the procedure, the death penalty is not intended to be therapeutic. For all of the recent controversy, this is not a problem that doctors or nurses can solve.