Breach of Trust

Physician Participation in Executions in the United States

Breach of Trust

Each organization involved in the creation of this report has different viewpoints on the death penalty itself, and all members agreed that this report would not take a position supporting or opposing capital punishment. Instead, the report focuses on medical involvement in executions, and the need to explore and define the ethical boundaries of such conduct. We narrowed the scope of the project to physician involvement only, although we point out when other health professionals participated in executions. Finally, we focus on execution procedures, rather than on related issues, such as physicians’ role in sentencing or conducting autopsies.

This report documents that physicians continue to be involved in executions, in violation of ethical and professional codes of conduct. This involvement is often mandated by state law and specified in departmental regulations about execution procedures. Even when state laws are vague about requiring physician participation, our research indicates that in practice, physicians are often directly involved in the execution process. As more states attempt to create the appearance of humane, sterile, or painless executions, lawmakers and corrections officials may look to physicians to apply their medical skills for this purpose. But execution is not a medical procedure, and is not within the scope of medical practice. Physicians are committed to humanity and the relief of suffering; they are entrusted by society to work for the benefit of their patients and the public. This trust is shattered when medical skills are used to facilitate state executions.

Our recommendations are designed to ensure that current U.S. laws do not require physicians to violate professional ethics. Society must decide whether, how, and when to impose capital punishment – without involving physicians in the execution process.

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