Physician Participation in Executions, the Morality of Capital Punishment, and the Practical Implications of Their Relationship

Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics 41 (1):333-352 (2013)
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Over the past several years, the most widely publicized issue in capital litigation has been the constitutional status of states’ lethal injection protocols. Death row inmates have not challenged the constitutionality of lethal injection itself, but rather execution protocols and their potential for maladministration. The inmates’ concern is due to the three-drug protocol used in the vast majority of capital jurisdictions: if the anesthetic, which is administered first, is ineffectively delivered, then the second and third drugs — the paralytic and heartbeat-ceasing agents — will cause torturous pain and suffering in violation of the Eight Amendment. Inmates have argued that the participation of anesthesiologists or other highly trained medical professionals is constitutionally required to minimize the risk of unnecessary suffering. This litigation, in conjunction with evidence that some executed inmates suffered torturous pain, has reinvigorated the ethical debate about physician participation in executions. Even though the United States Supreme Court has signaled that physician participation is not constitutionally required, lawmakers in death penalty states must consider the ethics of physician involvement.



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Paul Litton
University of Missouri, Columbia