WASHINGTON: An American doctors organisation has quietly decided to revoke the certification of any member who participates in executing a prisoner by lethal injection.
The mandate from the American Board of Anesthesiologists reflects its leaders' belief that ''we are healers, not executioners'', the board secretary, Mark Rockoff, said.
Although the American Medical Association has long opposed doctor involvement, the anaesthetists' group is the first to say it will harshly penalise a healthcare worker for abetting lethal injections.
About half of the 35 states performing executions, including Virginia and North Carolina, require a doctor to be present at all executions. Other states have also recruited doctors, including anaesthetists, to play a role in executions involving lethal injections. In some jurisdictions, anaesthetists consult prison officials on dosages. In others, they insert catheters and infuse the three-drug cocktails.
Under the policy, which the group's 40,000 members learned about in February, any of these activities could lead to a loss of certification. Anaesthetists can get state medical licences without certification, but most hospitals require it.
While death penalty opponents welcome the move because it raises more questions about lethal injections, capital punishment supporters say doctors are not needed during the procedures, which can be administered by prison employees.
But as questions mount about the types and combinations of drugs used and whether they cause undue suffering, states have been turning to doctors for advice and assistance.
With 3200 prisoners now on death rows across the country, most of the 50 executions performed each year since 2008 have used lethal injections.
''If I were lying there on the gurney and someone was administering a paralysing drug … I would want someone there who knew what they were doing,'' said Ty Alper, the associate director of the Death Penalty Clinic at the University of California at Berkeley's School of Law.
Thus far, no doctors have been disciplined, Dr Rockoff said, but several anaesthetists, including some who have worked as execution consultants or testified in capital punishment litigation, said the step has had a chilling effect.
''They are clearly drawing a line in the sand and saying, 'If you cross this, we'll come after you,''' said Bryan Liang, a law professor at California Western School of Law and a professor of anaesthesia at the University of California at San Diego.