At last there’s real hope for ridding the United States of the barbaric practice of capital punishment. It’s actually a possibility, thanks to two doctors who refused to take part in an execution that had been scheduled at California’s San Quentin Prison last month.
The doctors – anesthesiologists – had been assigned to certify that the state’s killing of a rapist-murderer, Michael Morales, set for February 21 did not violate the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, as Morales’ attorneys claimed it would.
The doctors had agreed to monitor the procedure to make certain Morales remained unconscious after being injected with lethal chemicals — the method of execution in most states. But the anesthesiologists pulled out after U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel ruled they would have to intervene personally to help further sedate Morales or “otherwise alleviate the painful effects” of the drugs if they determined he was conscious.
“Any such intervention would clearly be medically unethical,” the two unidentified doctors declared in a written statement.
That left the state no choice but to try a much lengthier and untried procedure the judge had suggested as an option – to kill Morales by injecting him with an overdose of the powerful barbiturate sodium pentothal that’s normally used as a sedative in executions prior to the injection of two paralyzing and heart-stopping chemicals.
The usual procedure calls for the three chemicals to be injected intravenously by unseen technicians outside the death chamber, through pumps attached to needles that have been inserted into the prisoners’ arms by guards or other prison staffers.
But Judge Foley ruled that the single-drug procedure he ordered would require a doctor or other licensed medical technician to be in the death chamber to inject the poison and monitor its effect directly, in front of dozens of witnesses. State prison officials said they could not find any qualified person willing to do that, at least not in the few hours between the anesthesiologists withdrawing and expiration of the warrant for executing Morales.
There’s good reason – or should be – for California’s failure to recruit the accomplices required for it and other states to kill. It should make no sense to even the most fervent supporters of capital punishment that doctors and others whose sworn duty is to heal people should help carry out death sentences.
The Hippocratic Oath doctors take on becoming physicians pledges them to “first of all, do no harm.” Even clearer is the American Medical Association’s policy. It holds unequivocally that “a physician, as a member of a profession dedicated to preserving life even when there’s no hope of doing so, should not be a participant in a legally authorized execution.”
The AMA says that means doctors should not help sedate the condemned, and not even act as monitors or give technical advice. Those are jobs “for an executioner, not a physician,” says President Michael Sexton of the AMA’s California affiliate.
California may yet put Michael Morales to death, but not before May, when Judge Fogel will hold hearings to decide whether to order procedural changes to better protect Morales and the 644 others on San Quentin’s Death Row from unnecessary pain, or to declare their planned executions unconstitutional .
As it has for more than a decade, the AMA meanwhile will be seeking state laws in California and elsewhere that would prohibit doctors from taking part in executions, on grounds that their participation violates “state, national and international codes of medical ethics. ” Laws would help. But if doctors and others in the medical profession nationwide would join the two California anesthesiologists who recognized the most important of their professional obligations, we could indeed be rid of capital punishment, that senseless, brutalizing act of revenge and retribution that demeans us all.