Medical Ethics and Executions: A New Development

May 3, 2010

lineedleThis weekend, the Washington Post reported that the American Board of Anesthesiology (ABA) decided in February to censure any of its members who participate in executions.  As the document outlining the policy states, bluntly: 

 “… anesthesiologists may not participate in capital punishment if they wish to be certified by the ABA.”

As members of the medical profession, anesthesiologists are bound by the oath to “do no harm,” and of course helping the state kill a prisoner violates that oath in the most fundamental and basic way.  According to the Post, anesthesiologists have been employed by executioners to “consult prison officials on dosages,” or “insert catheters and infuse the three-drug cocktails.”

This is not too big of a deal, since most states do not now use anesthesiologists, but the new policy is significant in that it has teeth.  Instead of being just another resolution decrying participation in executions (almost every association of medical professionals has already passed a resolution like that),  this one promises actual punishment and de-certification for anesthesiologists who chose to help the state put someone to death.   It will be interesting to see if other medical professions which have passed resolutions – physicians, emergency medical technicians (EMTs), nurses  – will follow suit and implement policies with some real consequences.

Ultimately, any states that still use anesthesiologists can simply stop using them, or alter their execution protocol, so this decision is likely to have little effect on executions.  But the American Board of Anesthesiology’s stand is symbolic of a growing recognition that the death penalty not only contradicts the ethics of one of our nation’s most prominent professions, but directly conflicts with one of our society’s most basic values:  the preservation of life.