Thursday, June 10, 2004

Should Doctors Help With Executions?

Good article in today's N.Y. Times about the ethics of physician involvement in executions. Here's the crux of the problem:
About 25 states allow or require doctors to be present at executions. But information on the number of doctors who participate in executions is hard to come by, as states generally refuse to name anyone who does so, citing security and privacy concerns. . . .

Many of the states that encourage doctors to participate in executions have seemingly contradictory laws that allow doctors to be disciplined by state medical boards for violating codes of medical ethics. Those codes almost universally forbid participation in executions.

The American Medical Association's ethics code, for instance, says that "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 code forbids doctors to perform an array of acts at executions, including prescribing the drugs, supervising prison personnel, selecting intravenous sites, placing intravenous lines, administering the injections and pronouncing death.

"They're not allowed to determine that the execution has been unsuccessful so that the execution can be repeated," said Dr. Stephen H. Miles, a professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota and author of "The Hippocratic Oath and the Ethics of Medicine."

But a survey of doctors in 2001 found that more than 40 percent would be willing to perform at least one of the forbidden activities.

Scholars who have studied the matter said they knew of no state board action against a doctor for aiding in a lawful execution. . . .

At least eight states . . . also seek to shield doctors from professional discipline through laws saying that aiding in executions is not the practice of medicine.
The AMA Code provision in question is E-2.06.

Interestingly, the Supreme Court may be heading toward a position that the absence of a physician's involvement in lethal injections may contribute to the execution's unconstitutionality. As the Times article points out:
In a unanimous decision on May 24 allowing a death row inmate to challenge lethal injections as cruel and unusual punishment, the United States Supreme Court appeared to suggest that a doctor should be required for at least some procedures.

The inmate in that case, David L. Nelson, had badly damaged his veins by long-term drug use, and went to court to fight a plan by Alabama prison officials to make a two-inch incision in his arm or leg to allow his execution to proceed. "There was no assurance," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in the decision, "that a physician would perform or even be present for the procedure."
The case in question is Nelson v. Campbell, No. 03-6821.
posted by tommayo, 9:23 AM

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