Mixing Law and Medicine:
A Lethal Combination
“First do no harm” is the foundations that medical practices are based on, but there times in which the lines are blurred and physicians must question their ethical, legal and moral participation in procedures. Physician participation in executions of convicted criminals is explored in this paper. The history of the death penalty, including the early involvement of physicians is surveyed. The pros and cons as well of the legal and ethical grounds for medical professionals are weighed ultimately present the necessity for qualified medical professionals to carry out state sanctioned executions regardless of one’s position on ...view middle of the document...
X. Being for or against capital punishment is not the issue.
Laws, rules, and any semblance of such are a necessity in order for society to function on even the most basic level. From the rules of table top Monopoly to the Supreme Court interpreting the Constitution, guidelines must be created and enforced to achieve a more uniform functioning world (Judson, 2006, p. 7). When policy is created, the primary concern is generally the focus on which the body is attempting to govern. The task of trying to consider all the possible conflicts with other associations would be impossible. While the laws of the land serve as a pillar for the legal system, the code of ethics serve as the pillar for the medical associations. Because policy of governing medical associations often conflict with Federal law or local statues concerned with physician’s involvement in court ordered executions, physicians potentially find themselves with the difficult decision of upholding the ethical foundations of their professions or using their competent medical training to implement in the most humane way in the final turn in the wheels of justice. Even though physician’s participation in the implementation of court ordered executions are in direct violation of the fundamental directive of the Physician’s Code of Ethics, “First, do no harm…,” it is a necessary product of the practice to ensure a “good death” for the convicted.
Due to the influence of English Common Law, executions have been employed by the United States of America since its inception. Primitive forms of executions exercised in the United States included being pressed to death, drawn and quartered, and burned at the stake. In 1608, the first person was sentences to death by hanging in the American Colonies. Even in these early archaic devices, physicians had their influence in executions for justice (Banner, 2002, p. 5). Just such a device is the Guillotine, a device used to behead the convicted person. In 1792, the guillotine was fueled by Dr. Joseph Guillotine who purposed to the English government that the death penalty should be imposed on the guilty who had committed crimes punishable by executions regardless of social rank and that such punishment should be carried out in a swift action to eliminate any undue suffering. The government quickly adopted his idea and commissioned building the “Guillotine” device (History of the Guillotine). Such primeval executions were defined as “cruel and unusual punishment” and were banned in the U.S. with the ratification of the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution in 1789 (Banner, 2002, p. 231). Death by hanging remained the loan permissible form of execution until the invention of electricity (American College of Physicians; Physicians for Human Rights, 1994). In 1881, Dr. Albert Southwick, a dentist, happened to witness a drunken man inadvertently make lethal contact with the terminals of an electric...