July 5, 2022

Should US doctors help execute death row prisoners?

Gurney for Florida's lethal injections Lobby groups are trying to expose doctors who participate in legal executions in the US and then charge them with violating codes of medical ethics. About 25 states allow or require doctors to be present during executions — which is normally by way of a lethal injection.

Dr Arthur Zitrin, a retired professor of psychiatry at New York University, has vowed to expose these doctors and have them expelled their professional organisations. When he discovered that Dr Sanjeeva Rao was helping to execute prisoners in Georgia, he denounced him to the American College of Physicians. However, Dr Rao’s membership had lapsed and he could not be expelled.

The legal status of doctors’ participation in executions is hazy. Most states allow their medical boards to discipline doctors for violating medical ethics — and nearly all medical codes forbid participation in executions. “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 authorised execution,” states the code of ethics of the American Medical Association. However, at least eight states have laws which shield death row doctors from censure by excluding their work from what is normally accepted as “the practice of medicine”.

Furthermore, a May 24 ruling by the US Supreme Court appeared to regard a lethal injection without the presence of a doctor as “cruel and unusual punishment”, which is forbidden by the American Constitution. Some people argue that there are humane reasons for participating. A legal expert, Dr Kenneth Baum, told the New York Times that “in the absence of competent medical oversight, many of these executions are unnecessarily painful. There is no reason, given that we are going to execute these people, to leave them defenceless.”