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Should Doctors Participate in the Death Penalty?

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By now, you’ve heard about the execution-gone-bad in Oklahoma where inmate Clayton Lockett died of a heart attack forty minutes after his lethal injection began and was abruptly halted.

“We believe that a vein was blown and the drugs weren’t working as they were designed to. The director ordered a halt to the execution,” according to state corrections department spokesman Jerry Massie.

Thirteen minutes into the procedure, Lockett began mumbling and seizing, which led the attending physician to stop the execution.  The reasons behind the botched procedure are still undetermined, but the fallout may just be beginning.

“This might lead to a halt in executions until states can prove they can do it without problems. Someone was killed tonight by incompetence,” said Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which monitors capital punishment.

Several debates will arise from this event.  A major discussion likely will be focused on the role of physicians in capital punishment.  Is it ethical?  Should the presence of a doctor be required?  Does that doctor need additional training?  Who should mandate the appointment of that physician?

The American Medical Association, in its Code of Medical Ethics, says that doctors should not participate in capital punishment:  “A physician, as a member of a profession dedicated to preserving life when there is hope of doing so, should not be a participant in a legally authorized execution.”

The New York Times offers several expert views with varying opinions on this legal, ethical and emotional issue.

Sidney Wolf, founder and senior adviser of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, says:

It is unfortunate when any physician, through negligence or ignorance, has a role in causing the death of a patient. But it is reprehensible when a physician deliberately participates, in any way, in the intentional killing of another human being by involvement in an execution.

Ty Alper, clinical professor of law at the U.C. Berkeley School of Law, says:

I agree with those who say that courts should require the participation of competent, qualified medical personnel – including doctors – during such procedures. Good doctors can help ensure that, if an execution is going to be carried out, the individual does not suffer needlessly.

Neil Farber, professor of clinical medicine at the University of California, San Diego, says:

Despite what may seem like a clear ethical and professional responsibility to refuse to cooperate with someone’s killing, many physicians not only approve such involvement, but see it as a duty.

What are your thoughts? Should physicians participate in capital punishment?

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