ResourcesPress Release

Physicians for Human Rights Comments on Oklahoma Execution

Health Professionals Who Participate in Executions Violate Medical Ethics

For Immediate Release

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) today renewed its call for the abolition of the death penalty, and called on health professionals to reject the use of medical science and doctors in killings by the state.

Tuesday’s botched execution in Oklahoma demonstrated why medical procedures should never be used in an attempt to sanitize executions by the state.

“Far from being a humane clinical procedure, the infliction of pain and suffering on this prisoner was cruel and unusual punishment and torture, which is prohibited by U.S. and international laws,” said Dr. Deborah Ascheim, a cardiologist who chairs PHR’s board of directors. “Health professionals who participate in killings by the state violate the most fundamental medical ethics, and undermine our profession.”

On Tuesday, death row inmate Clayton Lockett died in Oklahoma after he was injected with unidentified drugs. Witnesses reported that he writhed, clenched his teeth, and called out in pain before dying of a heart attack about 40 minutes later. An unnamed clinician was reportedly called to tend to Lockett. If true, a health professional would have effectively been overseeing the execution. Another scheduled execution has since been stayed for 14 days.

The American Medical Association (AMA), the American Public Health Association, the American Board of Anesthesiology, the American College of Physicians and the American Nurses Association all prohibit members from assisting in executions, but many states have recruited clinicians to participate in killings, shielding their identities and often reportedly paying them in cash.

PHR views execution by the state as cruel and inhuman punishment and opposes the death penalty in all cases and countries. PHR also opposes the participation of physicians and other health professionals in executions, including contributing to the search for so-called "humane" methods, determining competency to be executed, prescribing lethal drugs, inserting intravenous lines, attending executions as physicians, and pronouncing death. Doctors and other health professionals who participate in executions are in clear violation of professional ethics, which include the principle of “do no harm.”

The implementation of the death penalty in a number of states that require physician participation violates medical ethics. Lethal injection as a method of execution is at odds with medical ethics since it uses medical technology to kill.

The AMA prohibits all forms of physician participation in executions, including the following: “selecting injection sites; starting intravenous lines as a port for a lethal injection device; prescribing, preparing, administering, or supervising injection drugs or their doses or types; inspecting, testing, or maintaining lethal injection devices; and consulting with or supervising lethal injection personnel.”

Since the release of its 1994 report, Breach of Trust, PHR has continued to receive reports of physicians participating in executions against AMA guidelines. Several states have passed legislation protecting physicians who participate in executions from sanctions on the grounds that their activities do not constitute the practice of medicine.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

Media Contact

Kevin Short

Deputy Director, Media & Communications1.917.679.0110

Get Updates from PHR