When should physicians provide a good death?

A recent New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) Perspective by Deborah Denno, Ph.D., J.D., entitled “Physician Participation in Lethal Injection” (subscription or limited free access required) discussed physician involvement in state-sanctioned capital punishment by lethal injection. Some of the arguments for physician involvement in euthanasia (“a good death”) or Physician-Assisted Suicide (PAS) would seem to apply to some degree to lethal injection and is the subject of this blog entry.

For those without access, the article explored a recent Supreme Court rejection in Bucklew v. Precythe of a Missouri death row inmate’s appeal for protection from lethal injection under the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment”. In short, Russell Bucklew has a rare vascular condition making venous access both difficult and potentially more painful to use lethal injection as the means to execute him. It was argued that his medical condition necessitated at least medical training to guide the injection process, if not actual physician/surgeon training, such as possessed by an anesthesiologist, to provide the actual vein access for the lethal injection. In rejecting his appeal, the Court responded, in part, “the Eighth Amendment does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death – something that isn’t guaranteed to many people, including most victims of capital crimes.” The Court added that methods prohibited are those that “superadd terror, pain or disgrace to their executions”, though as the article points out, the Court does not specify as to how to test those limits, and left unanswered whether physician involvement was legally required to guarantee satisfaction of the Eighth Amendment.

The article discusses the fact that national medical associations generally strongly discourage their members from providing guidance for lethal injection. The American Medical Association’s (AMA’s) own amicus brief for the case listed above states that the AMA opposes capital punishment. The American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA) takes a similar position opposing participation of its members in lethal injection. Both the AMA and the ASA agree that capital punishment is not the practice of medicine and the ASA goes further to challenge the Court to look elsewhere for any lethal injection skills.

Interestingly, both organizations are less precise on their position regarding physician involvement in euthanasia or PAS. The AMA sees PAS as causing “more harm than good”. The ASA has no official published position on PAS that I could find on their website. Their Statement on Palliative Care does not mention euthanasia or PAS. This is important, as there is a growing demand for physician involvement in euthanasia/PAS, the implication being that there is additional benefit with physician involvement in achieving a good death.

For the record, I have always believed that physicians are uniquely the worst choice for killing people under any circumstance as our training universally focuses on honing skills that avoid causing death to our patients. We are effectively trained at not killing and would therefore provide dysthanasia – a bad death. But, perhaps, I am mistaken. There is growing demand to involve physicians in actively and purposefully killing their patients, with many holding the contrary belief that physicians uniquely have the best skill set to provide for euthanasia – a good death.

So, even though Russell Bucklew failed to make a successful legal case for physician involvement in lethal injection, did he make a sufficient moral case? If physicians and their unique skills are necessary for euthanasia/PAS, are they not equally necessary for state-sanctioned execution, particularly given that the latter involves the non-voluntary death of an individual who is guaranteed Eighth Amendment protections, and especially given our inability to provide any scientific evidence that we are satisfying those protections?

If physicians really are the best at providing euthanasia, doesn’t moral justice demand we require a physician to similarly provide a good, physician-assisted, state-sanctioned, death (PASSD) despite the stated objections of the AMA and ASA? Anything less arguably opens the door for adding “terror, pain or disgrace” to the execution.

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