HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Ethics of the Death Penalty for Physicians

As you have probably all been following, physicians in California have put a snag in that state's effort to execute Michael Morales through the use of lethal injection.  Here a story with background informatoin on the case from the LA Times.  The LA Times reports,

The Morales furor began a week ago when U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel declared that California's three-stage drug cocktail of a sedative, paralytic drug and heart-stopping chemical — the same protocol used in 37 of the 38 states with lethal injection — could mask, rather than eliminate, an inmate's pain during execution.

Fogel said the state would have to modify its execution procedure or he would hold a full hearing on the process in May.

To address his concern, prison officials elected to go forward just after midnight Monday with two doctors on hand to ensure that the sedative would be sufficient to deaden the pain of the heart-stopping drug. Just before the execution, however, the two anesthesiologists balked, saying the procedures forced them into the role of executioner, in violation of their medical ethics.

Fogel then said officials could go forward later in the day with a lethal dose of the sedative alone — administered by a licensed medical professional stationed within the execution chamber rather than by the usual "unseen hand" delivering the fatal drugs from another room.

But just two hours before the new, 7:30 p.m. time for the execution, a deputy attorney general told court officials that it had been called off.

San Quentin spokesman Crittendon said the state "was not able to find any medical professionals willing to inject medication intravenously, ending the life of a human being."

"The warden felt it was not ethical to approach an individual who would potentially be putting their license in jeopardy," Crittendon said. "How would it affect their careers by being involved in the execution process in the manner we've been discussing?"

Here are links to two interesting NPR stories on this topic from Tuesday on NPR's Day to Day (an overview of the medical ethics involved) and Wednesday on Morning Edition and some additional commentary from the fabulous editors at TalkLeft.  [bm]

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