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October 20, 2007

Should medical boards be able to bar doctor involvement in executions?

This interesting article discusses an on-going battle in North Carolina over doctor involvement in executions.  Here are snippets:

North Carolina doctors reasserted their opposition to participating in the executions of condemned criminals this week, appealing a judge's ruling that the state medical board cannot prohibit doctors from taking part in lethal injections.  The appeal focused renewed attention on doctors' roles during executions.

The U.S. Supreme Court and several other states are also considering whether executions by lethal injection cause excessive pain. There has been considerable debate about whether doctors should be present during lethal injections, a conflict sometimes described by doctors as "The Hippocratic Paradox." On one hand, doctors may be needed to carry out a lethal injection execution so that it is consistent with 8th Amendment prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment.  But others say the Hippocratic oath to preserve life rules out their involvement....

The current controversy was stirred when U.S. District Judge Malcolm J. Howard blocked an April 2006 execution at the prison in Raleigh after defense lawyers raised concerns that condemned inmates were experiencing an excessive level of pain during lethal injections....  Then, Howard reversed course, ruling that the execution could go forward, after prison officials said they would use a bispectral index monitor, which the state said could track the inmate's level of consciousness. The ruling required that medical personnel be present to ensure that the condemned inmate was unconscious before the second and third drugs were administered.

Charles van der Horst, professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina Medical School, and Arthur Finn, a retired doctor, were concerned that doctors would be asked to play a larger role in lethal injections.  Last year, they and other physicians urged the medical board to take a firm stand against any doctor participation in executions, saying it violated the Hippocratic oath. In mid-January, the board adopted that position..... 

In March, the state corrections department sued the board, asserting that it had prevented the state from finding physicians to be present at executions. Last month, state court JudgeDonald W. Stephens ruled that the board had overstepped its bounds. He said the state law requiring a doctor to "attend and provide professional medical assessment" during executions overrode the board's position.  The judge said executions should not be categorized as a "medical procedure or medical event" even though doctors were called on for medical tasks, including "ensuring that the condemned inmate is not subjected to unnecessary and excessive pain," and determining whether the inmate was dead.

Some related posts/readings about doctors and executions:

October 20, 2007 at 02:24 PM | Permalink


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No matter what the outcome in Baze v. Rees, the conundrum of the medical profession's participation in lethal injection executions will remain highly significant. For a recent discussion of the history and major arguments (as well as a shamless plug), see http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=983732 (posting Deborah W. Denno, The Lethal Injection Quandary: How Medicine Has Dismantled the Death Penalty, 76 Fordham Law Review 49-128 (2007)).

Posted by: Deborah W. Denno | Oct 21, 2007 9:33:54 AM

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