Doctors and Death Penalty Cases

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Published September 22, 2011

| FoxNews.com

In Georgia this week, standing in between Troy Davis and death by lethal injection, was a physician following an execution protocol. Rainbow Medical Associates is the organization contracted by the Georgia Department of Corrections which provided the staffing. Without a doctor, without Rainbow, the execution by lethal injection of this possibly innocent man could not have occurred.

I have long questioned the role of physicians in executions, and I am not alone. I define my role as prolonging life or decreasing suffering, certainly not ending life prematurely on behalf of the state. I believe that such an action compromises a doctor’s identity and ethics. 

Last year the American Board of Anesthesiologists issued a mandate that any member who participated in executing a prisoner by lethal injection would have their certification revoked. That seems like strong stuff until you consider the statement of their board secretary “we are healers, not executioners.” 

The AMA has also long been against doctors being involved in state executions.

Most executions use lethal injection. This technique is available in 36 of 38 states that have the death penalty. A doctor’s participation is required in 17 of these states and is necessary for prisoners with poor intravenous access. Despite the fact that many professional organizations like the American Board of Anesthesiologists forbid participation, many doctors are willing to be involved.

In fact, physicians helped design the lethal injection protocol. We provide the intravenous access, monitor the patients, administer the injections, and declare death. -- That's not at all what I thought I was signing up for when I enrolled in medical school.

Currently, one of the biggest problems with lethal injection is the fact that they are administered remotely and doctors do not assess depth of anesthesia prior to the sequence that automatically administers the life-ending drugs. This means that those killed may even have some level of awareness before they die.

Inhumanity aside, I just don’t see a role for physicians here. Our role is to preserve and extend life, not to end it. 

It may sometimes be acceptable for a doctor to hasten a patient’s death in the name of relieving their suffering, but it is never acceptable in my opinion for us to kill on behalf of a state or federal mandate. This is yet another disturbing example of government redefining and distorting a doctor’s essential role. 

The fact that Davis may have been innocent only makes the problem with the method of his execution even more disturbing.

Marc Siegel, M.D. is an associate professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Medical Center. He is a Fox News Medical Contributor and author of several books. His latest book is "The Inner Pulse; Unlocking the Secret Code of Sickness and Health."

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