Arguments that lethal injections violate the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment have effectively placed executions on hold in 11 states, says the Associated Press. The question of doctor participation has figured in some of those disputes. “It’s an inherent flaw of lethal injection, that in order to be reliably humane, it requires the participation of a group of people who are under ethical constraints and considerations,” said Dr. Mark Heath, an anesthesiologist at Columbia University Medical Center. Critics worry that if the three-drug combination is administered improperly, the condemned could suffer excruciating pain while immobilized and unable to cry out.
Doctors or other medical specialists play some role in a majority of the 38 states with a death penalty, says Deborah Denno, a Fordham University law professor. The procedures in many states are vague or even secret, and Denno said she is not aware of any state where a doctor actually administers lethal injections. Physicians are generally on hand to observe the execution, and in some cases ensure the injections are administered properly and pronounce the inmate dead. The American Medical Association has said for more than 20 years that physicians who take part in executions violate medical ethics. The job of punishing them falls to state medical boards that license doctors.