Sunday, May 9, 2010

A Backdoor Assault on the Death Penalty

The American Board of Anesthesiologists has voted to revoke the certification of any anesthesiologist who participates in executing a prisoner by lethal injection. The organization represents more than 40,000 members. Under the policy, any activity that directly relates to execution could lead to a loss of certification.

According to the Washington Post, about half of the 35 states performing executions require a doctor to be present. Other states have also recruited doctors, including anesthesiologists, to play a role in executions involving lethal injections. In some jurisdictions, anesthesiologists consult prison officials on dosages. In others, they insert catheters and infuse the three-drug cocktails.

Not all states continue to use the three drug cocktail. Ohio and Washington state have started using one anesthetic, similar to animal euthanasia. Ohio has successfully carried out two executions using the single drug method.

According to the Post, the identities of executioners are kept secret, therefore no one knows how often doctors assist in executions. But in California, a judge in 2006 ordered that a doctor be present for executions. Two anesthesiologists who had agreed changed their minds at the last minute, however. In Missouri in 2006, a judge ordered the state to revise its procedures and consult an anesthesiologist. Although that decision was overturned, the state recruited an anesthesiologist anyway.

My Take

This is a transparent effort to influence the death penalty. The lethal injection argument has failed before the highest court in the land. The U.S. Supreme Court in Baze v. Rees, 553 U.S. 34 (2008) found that the use of lethal injection did not violate the Eighth-Amendment ban against cruel and unusual punishment. This was when all states were still using the lethal three-drug cocktail.

Now, states like Ohio and Washington have narrowed the procedure to only a lethal dose of anesthesia. This has further eliminated the concerns about the paralytic and heart stopping drugs that were associated with pain. Ohio has carried out one-drug executions without incident.

This latest effort by the American Board of Anesthesiologists will not deter executions. The lethal dosage can be administered by prison staff, a nurse or medical assistant. Executions increased by 40-percent in 2009, the most executions since 2006. More than 2 out of 3 states permit the death penalty and according to a 2007 Gallup Poll 69-percent of Americans support the death penalty.

The interesting thing about the American Board of Anesthesiologists position is that they claim to take no position at all. According to the Post, "While not taking a stand against capital punishment per se, the Raleigh, N.C., board decided that not only was the participation of an anesthesiologist unethical, but also it could make patients wary about standard medical procedures."

Instead of taking a legitimate position opposing the death penalty on moral grounds the association has instead tried to use a backdoor strategy to bog down the operation of the death penalty. A form of punishment that a majority of Americans and a majority of lawmakers support.

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