Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Medicine and the practice of capital punishment.

Two articles in today's New York Times discuss two points of intersection between the practice of medicine and the death penalty:

1. Yesterday, the Supreme Court of the United States denied certiorari in an 8th Circuit case -- Singleton v. Norris (U.S., 02-10605) [requires subscription to WestLaw] -- in which the court of appeals, sittin en banc, ruled that medicating a mentally ill death row inmate in order to make him competent to be executed does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment. According to The Times' article, this is the first case in the country, state or federal, to so hold. That may be why the Supremes denied review; normally they like to let a few more courts chew on a problem before they tackle it (called "percolation"). The AMA, by the way, is against physicians participating directly in capital punishment (Opinion E-2.06: "When a condemned prisoner has been declared incompetent to be executed, physicians should not treat the prisoner for the purpose of restoring competence unless a commutation order is issued before treatment begins.")

2. In a second article, Adam Liptak reports that in more than 30 states that allow execution by lethal injection, a three-drug "cocktail" is used. One of the drugs -- pancuronium bromide -- is a paralytic. Increasingly, corrections officials and medical experts are questioning the practice of paralyzing prisoners as part of the execution process, particularly given the chance that the other drugs used may have inadequately anesthetized the patient. The result in such a case -- where a prisoner could be conscious, starved for oxgyen, and unable to move -- would be akin to turning the inmate's body into a living tomb. It probably goes without saying that the AMA's Opinion E-2.06 also forbids physicians from administering the cocktail, which may paradoxically increase the chance that just such an unintended effect will be produced.
posted by tommayo, 7:37 AM

Health care law (including public health law, medical ethics, and life sciences), with digressions into constitutional law, poetry, and other things that matter