Statement by Physicians for Human Rights
Physician Participation in the Death Penalty
Society entrusts physicians to work for the benefit of their patients
and the public. When doctors use their medical skills to facilitate
state executions, they shatter this trust and violate their commitment
to relieve suffering.
Physicians in the United States, in direct conflict with ethical
standards, routinely participate in executions. More than two dozen
states use lethal injection that requires special medical skills and devices. State statutes or regulations require that a physician
"shall" or "must" be present at an execution and, according to some
interpretations, must be directly involved. Many states with death
penalty statutes require a physician to "pronounce" or "determine"
Even this act of pronouncing death-as opposed to certifying it at a later time - raises serious concerns about physician complicity. In
Alabama, after officials electrocuted a condemned man in a 1989
execution, they called in two physicians to examine the inmate. Based
on their assessment that he was still alive, authorities administered
a second and fatal current.
PHR, along with the American College of Physicians, the National
Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and Human Rights Watch,
released the comprehensive report Breach of Trust - Physician
Participation in Executions in the United States, documenting
widespread physician involvement. The report includes case studies
obtained through interviews with witnesses and physicians; a review
of medical organizations' and state medical societies' responses; a
state-by-state summary of laws, regulations, and policies on execution; an analysis of the ethical foundations prohibiting participation; and recommendations against participation.
PHR supports health professionals who refuse to collaborate in
executions, and lauded the decision in 2006 by two California
anesthesiologists not to participate in a scheduled execution. PHR
opposes laws that mandate physician participation in execution, that
protect the anonymity of those who violate ethical standards, and recommends that state medical boards take action against violators.
PHR opposes capital punishment in all cases.