Ethical Dilemma: Doctors Helping at Executions


Doctors who participate in executions violate the most fundamental tenet of medical ethics, some critics say. But others defend these doctors, saying that lethal injections, the almost-universal form of execution in the United States, can be performed humanely only by medical professionals. About 25 states allow or require doctors to be present at executions. Yet many of these states 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. 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. The Georgia Department of Corrections, for instance, says execution records are “privileged and confidential state secrets.”


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