Saturday, 10 March 2007

Ethics on death row

Saturday, March 10, 2007
Ethics on death row

When it comes to capital punishment, North Carolina doesn't want to hear about ethics. The state is trying to end a death-penalty impasse by pushing the N.C. Medical Board out of the way.

Its behavior is simply repugnant.

The Department of Correction filed suit to block the Medical Board from enforcing an ethics policy that prohibits physicians from participating in executions. The state board's position mirrors that of the American Medical Association.

That conflicts with state law that requires a physician to attend each execution. Implicit is the idea that the physician will intervene if a medical problem occurs during the lethal injection process. Any kind of intervention, however, clearly violates the Medical Board's rules -- and properly so. Physicians have a duty to save lives, not to assist in taking them.

Correction Secretary Theodis Beck and his boss, Gov. Mike Easley, don't seem to understand this. Their priority is to maintain a schedule of executions. A Superior Court judge has stopped five so far because of the stalemate over medical ethics. The state can't carry out an execution according to the law unless a physician attends, and physicians won't agree to attend because doing so would contravene the firmly established ethical standards of their profession.

The state's remedy: Damn the ethics. It's asking the courts to strip the Medical Society of the authority to punish violations of its policy. The courts should reject this appeal before it even gets a hearing. It's out of order.

The state has no business trying to override medical ethics as established by leading professional organizations or trying to rope physicians into playing a role in a procedure that directly contradicts the ideals and standards of their calling.

There are better options, the first being the abolishment of capital punishment. The worst, most dangerous offenders can be imprisoned for the rest of their lives, which protects the public and curtails the lengthy and expensive appeals afforded in capital cases.

The next alternative is to repeal the law requiring a physician's presence and devise some other execution protocol that doesn't rely on medical expertise other than attesting to the inmate's death.

The state won't find a solution by ignoring the ethical implications of putting people to death -- no matter how deserving the condemned inmate may be regarded. Physicians are trained to treat every life as valuable, and government should not try to use its power to undermine the moral underpinnings of the practice of medicine. If the state can corrupt doctors, it can poison all.

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