Why be in such a hurry (to kill someone)?

Once again, I find myself straying into a political issue (although I’d argue that it’s more a human rights issue). I understand that I’m probably in the minority in this country in my opposition to the death penalty. My fellow Americans generally vote to allow it, and my vote only counts once. One area where my opinion my carry a bit more weight (or maybe not) is in the area of medical ethics. Given that the death penalty is legal in the U.S., what role should doctors play?

Troy Anthony Davis is a guy that Georgia wants dead so badly that they can’t be bothered to wait for the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in (SCOTUS is scheduled to discuss the case on the 29th, six days after the state kills Davis).

But here’s the part that really gets me as a physician (from the Atlanta Journal Constitution):

After that, Davis is to be given a routine physical and a last meal. Davis has not requested anything special and is to be served a regular prison meal, Czachowski said. He will then be given the opportunity to record any statement he wishes to give and, an hour before his scheduled execution, will be offered a sedative, the spokesman said.

There is nothing “routine” about this medical exam. After all, the patient has a soon-to-be fatal condition; the doctor knows both how and when the patient will die. As a physician, if I know how and when someone will die, and the patient wishes to avoid this fate, I have a duty to help him. This doesn’t mean that I have a duty to help the state make it easier to kill him, or to make the process smoother. It means that I am duty-bound to help him avoid a preventable death (and no matter what the law says, it is preventable.) There is no principle of medical ethics that allows me or any other doctor to ethically participate in any facet of an execution. Doctors who do this “wet” work can try as hard as they wish to justify it but there is no escaping it—-doctors are ethically forbidden to participate in executions (beyond their other societal roles, that is, they can ethically vote to support it, condemn someone on a jury, etc.).

This certainly puts states in a bind. If a medical person isn’t supervising the execution, it may not go painlessly and smoothly. Well, that’s hardly our problem as doctors; it’s the State’s problem. Maybe this conundrum tells us something about the ultimate morality of the death penalty. It can’t be done “humanely” without a medical professional, and it can’t be done ethically with a doctor.

I’ve always suspected the real role of a doctor in executions is to make the participants (other than the condemned) feel better. After all, if you’re killing someone, and you’re not a beast of a human being, you don’t want to see them suffer, or to feel you are the agent of their suffering. A doctor’s presence removes some of the discomfort involved in killing another human being.

And places it squarely on the doctor’s shoulders (and conscience).

Think hard, my fellow doctors—are jobs so scarce? Is this what you signed up for?