Recently, two executions by lethal injections were carried out in America. One ended the life of Troy Davis in Georgia, the other with too much hate Lawrence Russell Brewer in Texas. Death and dying offer complexity and complications in the profession medicine bound by policies, mandates and laws driven by internal (e.g. professional associations, medical boards) and external (e.g. federal, state, medical center) forces.
Lethal injections involve delivering a fatal dose of drugs resulting in unconsciousness, paralysis, cardiac arrest then within minutes, death. Dr. Marc Siegel’s recent commentary on “Doctors and Death Penalty Cases” notes that “… physicians helped design the lethal injection protocol. We provide the intravenous access, monitor the patients, administer the injections, and declare death. — That’s not at all what I thought I was signing up for when I enrolled in medical school.”
Bioethics helps us question our beliefs and values as they unfold in the treatment and care of patients. We should consider, first do no harm.
Since 1980 the American Medical Association code of Medical Ethics has opined against physician participation in capital punishment including lethal injections. As of 2010 the American Board of Anesthesiologists (ABA) will revoke the certification of members who participate in execution by lethal injection. ABA board member, Dr. Mark Rockoff makes a salient remark, “if lethal injections are medicalized, it could make it look like operating rooms are like death chambers, that anesthesiology drugs are death drugs and anesthesiologists are executioners. That would all undermine public confidence in the medical profession.” These decisions are not based on the appropriateness of the death penalty.
Overwhelming schedules, research demands and high volume patient case loads should not push us away from this challenging dialogue and/or opportunity for advocacy. The debate here is personal, political and inter-professional one that should not be avoided by health care professionals.
Katherine Ellington is a medical student who blogs at World House Medicine.
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