Thursday, 11 January 2007

Surgeon cites link between lethal injection, Nazis

Surgeon cites link between lethal injection, Nazis

Jonathan Groner, an associate professor of surgery at the Ohio State University College of Medicine and Public Health, says he believes there are parallels between the medical community's involvement in lethal injection in America, and in Nazi Germany's "euthanasia" program. As in Nazi Germany, American doctors today are being asked to hold the lethal syringe.

Daniel Sturm: You say that you see similarities between Nazi doctors and U.S. execution teams?

Jonathan Groner: Being Jewish and having gone to Hebrew High School, at Northwestern University I read many Holocaust books. It was interesting to see how intimately doctors were involved in the Nazi euthanasia program, and eventually in the genocide. When I was a surgery resident, I heard a lecture about Robert Jay Lifton, who studied the corruption of Nazi Germany physicians. Lifton described how the government recruited physicians to kill physically and mentally disabled patients, including the "criminally insane." What struck me was National Socialism's idea of using healing imagery to justify killing. That stayed with me.

Sturm: When did you first become critical of the death penalty?

Groner: In 1997, Arkansas executed three people in one night. Reading about how they came into the room, put the IVs in, laid the prisoners down on the table, and executed them one by one - this sounded a lot like the concentration camps. The euthanasia program's chief administrator was often quoted saying, "The syringe belongs in the hand of a physician."

The analogy really stuck with me. Compare the kind of language they use to describe these executions, and you will find similarities. It's a similar kind of healing imagery: "Family hopes killer's death ends their years of pain, lets their healing begin." The Time magazine article about the first lethal injection in 1982 read, "It looks like a hospital room." And after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, President Clinton said, "It's time to let the healing begin." And his next sentence was, "We've got to find the people who did this to kill them!" It's always this pattern of killing/healing/killing/healing.

Sturm: You argue that after the introduction of lethal injection the number of executions increased. How so?

Groner: My thesis is that if we never went with lethal injection, we'd never have begun executing more than five or seven prisoners per year. I think lethal injection puts that veneer of medical respectability on murder. I think they did a good job in "Dead Man Walking" to demonstrate this kind of medicalization: They swab the prisoner's arm with alcohol and all that. It looks like medicine, and again, it's just like the Nazi regime's medicalized killing.

Sturm: In 1977, when Dr. Stanley Deutsch, an Oklahoma anesthesiologist, helped to draft the first state lethal-injection law, it was considered progress. A more humane method of killing when compared with the electric chair.

Groner: Is there such a thing as humane killing? Could there be less physical torture? I don't think so either. I have patients who pass out from taking out sutures, and others I can cause significant pain to and they seem fine. You just can't quantify physical or psychic pain. Would it be more humane to use anesthesia drugs? Perhaps. But in order for his method to succeed, and not torture people, it requires medically trained individuals. A prison guard administering pancuronium is almost like me flying a 747. I can actually fly an airplane. But I couldn't fly a 747.

Sturm: Why doesn't Ohio employ physicians to ensure that executions are done properly?

Groner: The state fears litigation. The American Medical Association (AMA) distinguishes between pronouncing death and certifying death. To pronounce death, you are trying to ascertain that the moment of death has arrived. In order to do that, you have to examine a person's presence or absence of vital signs. The AMA considers monitoring the vital signs in an execution to be unethical. If you monitor vital signs and there is still a presence, you would have to give more drugs, so you would instantly become an actor of execution.

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