The absence of cruelty is not the presence of humanness: physicians and the death penalty in the United States
Department of Anesthesiology, Emory University, 201 Dowman Drive, Atlanta, GA, 30322, USA
Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine 2012, 7:13 doi:10.1186/1747-5341-7-13Published: 3 December 2012
The death penalty by lethal injection is a legal punishment in the United States. Sodium Thiopental, once used in the death penalty cocktail, is no longer available for use in the United States as a consequence of this association. Anesthesiologists possess knowledge of Sodium Thiopental and possible chemical alternatives. Further, lethal injection has the look and feel of a medical act thereby encouraging physician participation and comment. Concern has been raised that the death penalty by lethal injection, is cruel. Physicians are ethically directed to prevent cruelty within the doctor-patient relationship and ethically prohibited from participation in any component of the death penalty. The US Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty is not cruel per se and is not in conflict with the 8th amendment of the US constitution. If the death penalty is not cruel, it requires no further refinement. If, on the other hand, the death penalty is in fact cruel, physicians have no mandate outside of the doctor patient relationship to reduce cruelty. Any intervention in the name of cruelty reduction, in the setting of lethal injection, does not lead to a more humane form of punishment. If physicians contend that the death penalty can be botched, they wrongly direct that it can be improved. The death penalty cocktail, as a method to reduce suffering during execution, is an unverifiable claim. At best, anesthetics produce an outward appearance of calmness only and do not address suffering as a consequence of the anticipation of death on the part of the condemned.