Sunday, 7 October 2007

Veterinarians find selves in death penalty debate

Star-Telegram staff writer

Inmates are executed by lethal injection in this death chamber in Huntsville. The constitutionality of the three-chemical execution method will be at issue before the Supreme Court.

AUSTIN -- The ongoing debate over whether lethal injection inflicts unconstitutional misery on condemned inmates has ensnared the American Veterinary Medical Association in a political debate of which the 75,000-member organization wants no part.

At issue is the argument, asserted mostly by opponents of capital punishment, that one of the three drugs used in lethal injection has been roundly condemned by the veterinary group as an acceptable agent to euthanize animals. The argument has been commonly cited in media reports and is part of the legal arguments the U.S. Supreme Court will hear as it considers whether the lethal injection process violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

"Somehow, we are part of this fight," said Michael San Filippo, a spokesman for the American Veterinary Medical Association. "But we never wanted to be in it, and we don't want to stay in it."

Focus on paralyzing chemicals
The organization, whose mission is to develop scientific research that leads to better medical care for animals and to lobby on behalf of veterinarians at the state and federal levels, became part of the death penalty debate after issuing guidelines for euthanizing animals in 2000. The guidelines, which were updated again this year, urge veterinarians not to use chemicals that cause paralysis as the sole agent for causing death or to mix them with fast-acting, sleep-inducing chemicals to put down animals.

The reasoning behind the directive is that drugs that cause paralysis prevent breathing, leading to slow and agonizing suffocation.

Lawyers for Death Row inmates and anti-death-penalty activists seized on the veterinary guidelines because the three-drug cocktail used in lethal injection includes the paralyzing agent pancuronium bromide. It is administered after a dose of sodium thiopental, which puts the inmate to sleep, and before the heart-stopping potassium chloride.

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a challenge to lethal injection in a case that originated in Kentucky. No date has been set for the hearing, but since the court decided to hear arguments, two Texas inmates scheduled for execution this month have been granted at least temporary reprieves. One was condemned for killing an Arlington store manager in 2001.

Opponents of lethal injection have persuaded the high court to examine the lethal injection process in part by pointing out that if an inmate received an improper dose of the sleep-inducing chemical, he or she would suffer needlessly after the pancuronium bromide kicked in, but because of the head-to-toe paralysis, no observer would be able to discern the discomfort.

Foes' view called oversimplification
The argument has often boiled down to a simple question: "If a vet wouldn't put down a dog with pancuronium bromide, why should the state be allowed to execute a human being with the stuff?"

But San Filippo said the statement is an oversimplification of the veterinary association's guidelines and implies that it is in league with critics of the death penalty.
"It's a catchy argument, but it's not what we're saying," he said. "As an organization, we take no position on the death penalty."

Kimberly May, a veterinarian who is also medical and science writer for the veterinary association, said its guidelines for euthanasia make no specific mention of pancuronium bromide. She also said that the organization has no power to ban any drugs. However, a number of states, including Texas, have banned the use of pancuronium bromide for euthanizing animals based on the veterinary association's concerns.

May and San Fillippo also said that circumstances might arise when a veterinarian might be justified in using a paralyzing drug, such as to subdue a dangerous animal who poses an immediate threat to humans.

Steve Hall, who runs Austin-based StandDown Texas, which calls for a moratorium on executions, said that even if the veterinary association does not want to become involved in the death penalty debate, there is probably little its officers can do to prevent it.

"The death penalty is a hot-button issue, and a lot of people don't like to touch it," Hall said. "But it's hard to walk away from the fact that we are using a drug to kill people that our neighborhood vet wouldn't use if our dog or cat needed to be put to sleep."

Online:; John Moritz reports from the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau. 512-476-4294

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