April 24, 2024

US anaesthetists banned from participating in executions

Professional body insists on primum, non nocere: first, do no harm
lethal injection gurneyAnaesthetists who participate in the death
penalty by lethal injection risk losing their certification, the American
professional body has decided. Anaesthetists “should use their clinical skills
and judgment for promoting an individual’s health and welfare,” says the American Board of Anaesthesiology.
“To do otherwise would undermine a basic ethical foundation of medicine which
is – first do no harm.”

Most states nowadays use lethal injections
as a method of capital punishment. Prison authorities sometimes consult
anaesthetists to determine the proper doses of drugs which will kill a prisoner
without causing undue pain. This is a lively issue, as executions were deferred
throughout the US in 2007 and 2008 while the Supreme Court decided whether a
three-drug cocktail violated a constitutional ban on cruel and unusual

Now that executions have resumed, there is
more demand for advice from anaesthetists or to help in administering the

Not all anaesthetists agree with the new
policy, but they were reluctant to speak on the record with the Washington
Post. “It sure will deter me. For the ABA to threaten to pull your board
certification is a big deal,” said one doctor.

Even if they are opposed to the death
penalty in principle, some anaesthetists might be willing to cooperate so that
the prisoner does not suffer unnecessary pain. However, the board is convinced
that a doctor’s obligation never to do harm is absolute. “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,” says board secretary Mark A. Rockoff. “That would all
undermine public confidence in the medical profession.” ~ Washington
Post, May 2

Michael Cook
death penalty
lethal injection
primum non nocere