Sunday, May 25, 2008

Anesthesiologist Violates Code of Ethics to Perform Executions

After a two-plus-years break, Missouri is ready to resume executing prisoners, again with a certified anesthesiologist on board. Whatever their personal stance on state-sponsored murder may be, the ethical code of the profession is very clear on the matter.

“It is a fundamental and unwavering principle that anesthesiologists, consistent with their ethical mandates, cannot use their art and skill to participate in an execution,” the society stated in a brief it filed last year in the U.S. Supreme Court.

The AMA first adopted its ethical stance in 1980. Its current policy states:

“A physician, as a member of a profession dedicated to preserving life when there is hope of doing so, should not be a participant in a legally authorized execution.” [The American Society of Anesthesiology has adopted the same code.]

The inclusion of the anesthesiologist on the execution team, despite clearly violating ethics, is not necessarily a clear-cut case. In spite of the ethical code, neither the AMA or the ASA has the authority to discipline a member who violates it, and neither organization has a written stance on the executions themselves. It is up to the individual to make their own moral assessment.

That said, aiding executions seems a slap in the face to the "do no harm" policy of the medical profession, and indeed the State of Missouri had a hell of a time finding anyone to participate.

Department of Corrections officials contacted hundreds of anesthesiologists in Missouri and elsewhere but could not find one willing to take on that role.

The case prompted the then president of the anesthesiologists society to advise its members to “steer clear” of participating in executions.

The central argument in favor of the participation centers on the humanity of the process, as having an anesthesiologist present would ensure that pain and suffering is kept to a minimum. This is not always the case, though.

Identified in court as John Doe I, the doctor also admitted using only half the prescribed dose of anesthesia during the state’s last execution in October 2005 without notifying corrections officials.

Whether or not any action can be taken against an individual violating written ethics does not affect the general principle. Namely, that medical professionals are duty-bound to refrain from causing harm to any person. Certainly causing death meets that criterion.

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