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Week of 7.14.06

Do No Harm?

A new controversy about the death penalty focuses not on the convicts, but on doctors and nurses who help end their lives. NOW asks the question: Should medical professionals play a part in state executions?

Since its beginnings in the 1980s, lethal injection has become the most popular execution method, resulting in increased participation by medical professionals in capital punishment.

"I don't know that I consider anybody an executioner, even the people that I know who push the drugs ... I look at it as the state is the executioner," "Karen", a nurse who has participated in 14 executions at a prison in Jackson, Georgia, told NOW.

Georgia, like a number of other states, requires that nurses and doctors be in attendance when an inmate is put to death. Karen, who did not want to show her face for fear of retribution, describes how medical personnel have been harassed and forced to go underground.

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But that's not how most groups representing nurses and doctors, such as the American Medical Association, see things. They clearly state in a 1980 resolution that they oppose doctors helping the government carry out executions because a physician is "dedicated to preserving life."

Legal challenges in some states are changing execution protocol and increasing the need for medical personnel. Last month in Missouri a federal judge ordered the state to have a board-certified anesthesiologist assist in the lethal injection process. Earlier this year, California also ruled that an anesthesiologist should partake in executions. Both states have faced difficulties in finding physicians willing to participate. Executions in those states have been put on hold as a result.

The number of similar legal cases is set to rise since a Supreme Court ruling last month made it easier for death-row prisoners to challenge lethal injection as cruel and unusual punishment.

How can doctors and nurses reconcile their need to participate in the death penalty while adhering to the ethical and moral codes of their profession?