December 6, 2022

“Somebody’s gotta do it”

Doctors who participate in torture and capital punishment are unlikely to be hailed as role models for their colleagues.
capital

Doctors
who participate in torture
and capital punishment are unlikely to be hailed as role models for their
colleagues. The American Board of Anesthesiology has even declared that it
might decertify members who participate in lethal injections.

However,
two articles in the latest Hastings Center Report suggest that there is a place
for complicity. Even in a torture chamber or on a gurney, people still need
healing hands to staunch the blood or to palliate the suffering. Who else will
do it?

On
capital punishment, Lawrence Nelson and Brandon Ashby of Santa Clara University
argue:

“Though
there are good arguments against physician participation in executions,
physicians should be allowed to make their own decisions about whether they
will participate, and professional medical organizations should not flatly
destroy the careers of those who do.”

“We
contend that, though the traditional ethical arguments against physician
participation are not without merit, they are not persuasive enough to justify
a total ban on physician involvement. When principled and morally serious
arguments lead to different conclusions about what physicians as medical
professionals may do, individual physicians typically are allowed by their
colleagues to make their own decisions about the proper use of their medical
knowledge and skills.

“Hence,
professional medical organizations should allow physicians to participate in
executions on the basis of their own consciences; and although we do not oppose
other forms of sanction, we believe they should not impose organizational
sanctions that significantly impede or destroy physicians’ ability to practice
medicine.”

On
the participation of doctors in torture, Chiara Lepora of the University of
Denver and Joseph Millum of the National Institutes of Health argue:

“Doctors
sometimes find themselves presented with a grim choice: abandon a patient or be
complicit in torture. Since complicity is a matter of degree and other moral
factors may have great weight, sometimes being complicit is the right thing to
do…

“Medical
complicity in torture, like other forms of involvement, is prohibited both by
international law and by codes of professional ethics. However, when the
victims of torture are also patients in need of treatment, doctors can find
themselves torn. To accede to the requests of the torturers may entail
assisting or condoning terrible acts. But to refuse care to someone in medical
need may seem like abandoning a patient and thereby fail to exhibit the
beneficence expected of physicians.” ~

The
editor of the Hastings Center Report clearly felt uneasy about showcasing these
views. “I want it clear that publishing the articles does not necessarily mean
I or others at the Center think they are right,” wrote Greg Kaebnick. ~
Hastings Center Report,  May-June 2011

Somebody’s gotta do it
Jared Yee
bioethics
torture