When Law and Ethics Collide — Why Physicians Participate in Executions

Atul Gawande in the New England Journal of Medicine:

On February 14, 2006, a U.S. District Court issued an unprecedented ruling concerning the California execution by lethal injection of murderer Michael Morales. The ruling ordered that the state have a physician, specifically an anesthesiologist, personally supervise the execution, or else drastically change the standard protocol for lethal injections.1 Under the protocol, the anesthetic sodium thiopental is given at massive doses that are expected to stop breathing and extinguish consciousness within one minute after administration; then the paralytic agent pancuronium is given, followed by a fatal dose of potassium chloride.

The judge found, however, that 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.

More here.  [Thanks to Michael Blim.]