The Medical Ethics of the Death Penalty

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The execution of convicted killer and rapist Michael Morales was delayed when two court-appointed anesthesiologists refused to take part. Attorneys for Morales argued that lethal injection was cruel and unusual punishment. Alex Chadwick discusses the controversy with Dr. Priscilla Ray of the American Medical Association's ethics council.


Convicted killer and rapist Michael Morales was scheduled to die by lethal injection just after midnight at California's San Quentin prison. But the execution was delayed when two court-appointed anesthesiologists refused to take part. Those doctors had been asked to attend the execution after Morales's legal team called California's lethal injection cocktail cruel and unusual punishment.


Dr. Priscilla Ray is Chair of the American Medical Association's Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs. Earlier, I asked her to outline the AMA's ethical stand on doctors participating in executions.

Dr. PRISCILLA RAY (Chair, American Medical Association Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs): The AMA's position is that while a position on the death penalty is up to each individual person's moral and ethical beliefs, that physicians should not participate in executions.

CHADWICK: So, would it be then unethical to oversee or to witness an execution in an official capacity?

Dr. RAY: Yes it would. And our belief is based on the fundamental ethical precept of medicine is that we first do no harm.

CHADWICK: In this case, here you have someone who's been found guilty of a heinous crime, been sentenced to death, and has raised objections about the way the execution is carried out, says that he's concerned that he may feel excruciating pain. Wouldn't it be the role of a physician to sort of look over that and say well here's how you can avoid the pain?

Dr. RAY: I think the patient or the, I guess, condemned person in that setting, is not interested actually in dying. And so, it's the issue of do we adhere to the patient's wishes if there's hope of prolonging life or preserving health? Or do we simply participate in an execution by giving advice, by giving counseling, by overseeing it, or supervising it? And our position is that that's what doctors are not supposed to do. We're healers, we're not killers.

CHADWICK: If an anesthesiologist oversaw an execution, or simply witnessed one, or lent some advice, would you take action against that person? Would the AMA attempt to have his or her license revoked?

Dr. RAY: The American Medical Association, if the case is brought to us, would be reviewed by the Council on Ethical Judicial Affairs concerning that physician's membership in the American Medical Association. The board of medical examiners in the different states would oversee licensure.

CHADWICK: So, you might throw him out of the AMA but they, they would still be a doctor?

Dr. RAY: Well, they would still be a doctor even if the license was removed but they might not be able to practice in that particular state and that depends on the state.

CHADWICK: Let me ask you this. The State of California says they have a backup plan. If they can't get an anesthesiologist by 7:30, 8:00 tonight, when the execution is set, it will use barbiturates rather than this mix of chemicals that are administered intravenously. How long would it take someone to die from an overdose of barbiturates?

Dr. RAY: That, I understand that it's a longer death. Although I don't administer these barbiturates.

CHADWICK: Would it eliminate the possibility of pain?

Dr. RAY: Again, that's not a drug that I administer, so I can't tell you for sure. That's my understanding of what I've been told.

CHADWICK: Well, you are the chair of the Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs. Here's something that I bet you have questions about, states would have questions about, but I think you're saying look we just don't need to know or want to know the answers to all of these questions. It's not our position as physicians to provide these kinds of answers.

Dr. RAY: That's right. I think the advice could be sought out other places about what would be humane and what would be not. Or they can derive that from facts that are already known. I don't think it requires the consultation of a physician to participate in the execution by giving advice on how to carry it out.

CHADWICK: Dr. Priscilla Ray, Chair of the Council of Ethical and Judicial Affairs for the American Medical Association. Dr. Ray, thank you for speaking with us.

Dr. RAY: Sure, thank you.

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