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article imagePhysicians Clash over Medical Ethics in Death Penalty Cases

By Carol Forsloff     Jun 23, 2009 in Lifestyle
Doctors are bound by oath to do no harm, and yet they are heavily involved in administering the death penalty. Because of ethical concerns some doctors are refusing to be involved in executions.
Dr. Marc Stern is being hailed by Denmark’s Amnesty International and anti-death penalty groups for his stand against the death penalty. As the head doctor for Washington state’s 16,000 prison inmates, it was his job to make sure the lethal injection table was working adequately before each execution. He decided this was ludicrous and told his boss, "I can't do this. I won't do this. I'm not allowed to do this." He explains he is against the death penalty although he is no activist particularly. Stern just doesn’t think it’s right for health-care staffers to be involved in preparing for executions. Washington last performed an execution in 2001 using lethal injection, and eight are now on death row in the state.
This puts states in a bind according to Richard Deiter head of the Death Penalty Information Center. That’s because states are admonished to avoid cruel or unnecessarily painful punishment, so this means having a doctor involved. The problem is the best course of action is one that puts doctors in an ethical dilemma.
After Stern raised objections, he thought the issue was closed until last fall, while the state was preparing for an execution, the medical staff was doing practice runs to prepare the condemned, Darold Stenson for execution. This meant a physician assistant checked his veins and a pharmacist ordered the lethal drug cocktail. In addition a nurse, the prison director in Walla Walla, attended eight practice sessions, one of which took place on a table top in someone’s home. Private medical practitioners were also involved including a former Washington state toxicologist and an Oregon doctor.
Stern found out about this and decided to have it investigated and filed complaints with the State. This received no attention, so Stern resigned.
The clash between medical ethics and the death penalty is one that has taken place in a number of instances in the past several years. In 2006 the execution of convicted killer and rapist Michael Morales was delayed when two court-appointed anesthesiologists refused to take part in administering the drugs for a lethal injection, after attorneys for the condemned man cited it to be cruel and unusual punishment.
The problem goes further. Experts maintain the ethical argument against professional participation in capital cases needs to be carefully examined. If all medical professionals are bound by the ethical code, the very issue of capital punishment would be difficult because of the concerns about cruel and unusual punishment. Furthermore, not all medical professionals support the view of those who believe they are bound by the ethics not to be involved. Indeed the dilemma, according to experts, is that capital punishment could end as a result of these issues.
More about Medical ethics, Death penalty, Amnesty international
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