"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."
American Medical Association A new form of execution is replacing the electric chair and hanging. It is seen as more humane than other methods and is believed to be more palatable to juries voting in capital cases.However, lethal injection is not without its own controversies. Many physicians object to the medical trappings; others have compared the methodology to that of the medical experiments in Nazi Germany.
One of the greatest controversies is whether physicians should be involved in the process. The American Medical Association states, "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. A physician may make a determination or certification of death as currently provided by law in any situation."
The original statement was made in 1982 and the ethical guideline was reaffirmed in December 1990.
Though there has been a good deal of discussion about the degree of participation of physicians, it would seem that the line of ethical participation has been drawn fairly clearly at pronouncing the victim dead. This guidance protects the physician employee who might be coerced into activity that he or she distinctly opposes. It also provides some degree of reassurance for the public that though the contrivances of the profession might be in use, the professionals, themselves are not.
A sterile room . . . a gurney . . . intravenous lines and common drugs . . . these are all the paraphernalia of the physician and the hospital. They are commonly used by physicians to restore health and relieve suffering. To confuse their use in the eye of the public by having them become the instruments of death is a sad commentary. To ask . . . or insist . . . that physicians use them as instruments of death is absolutely unacceptable.
The questions facing our society have become increasingly more complex. We are discussing issues of allowing patients to die and assisting patients to kill themselves. And at the same time, in a climate of distrust and contention, we are attempting to convince the public that physicians care for them and have their well-being foremost in their minds. Though there might be little correlation in the minds of many, causing physicians and their paraphernalia to be the takers of yet another class of lives adds to the confusion and distrust.
The guillotine and the firing squad were never confused with medical therapy. The executioner did not in any form resemble the compassionate physician.
The question of whether or not a society should support capital punishment is one for society to answer. The question of whether or not physicians should participate in such punishment is one for the profession to answer and it has offered a resounding "No."
(Nancy W. Dickey is a trustee of the American Medical Association.)