Is Capital Punishment Ever Ethical?

By Nicholson, Richard H. | The Hastings Center Report, July-August 1995 | Go to article overview

Is Capital Punishment Ever Ethical?


Nicholson, Richard H., The Hastings Center Report


Earlier this year the British media were much concerned--and much more concerned than American media--with the electrocution in Georgia of Nick Ingram. He was the first British-born man to be executed for many years. The link was tenuous--he had moved to the United States when only one year old--but it gave the British media a chance to display their universal disquiet at the process of capital punishment in the United States.

At the time I discussed the issue with some European bioethicists. Apart from a genuine perplexity in understanding how a civilized, supposedly enlightened, country could have returned to the use of capital punishment, there was concern that it seemed to play no part in bioethical discourse. We wondered whether perhaps we had missed important papers in the literature, or perhaps opposition to capital punishment was such an article of faith in the bioethics community that it needed no stating. Yet as the pace of capital punishment rises, surely any opposition would need public and regular statement.

Nick Ingram committed murder while intoxicated and was sentenced to death in 1984. The sentence was carried out eleven years later. While we have not had capital punishment for three decades in the United Kingdom, our highest appellate court, the Privy Council, still hears final appeal cases from elsewhere in the British Commonwealth. Two years ago it ruled, in a case from Jamaica, that to hold a prisoner on death row for more than five years was a cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment. As a result, hundreds of prisoners around the world have had their death sentences commuted. Yet it appears to be rare for an execution to take place less than five years after sentence in the United States.

This is not the place to rehearse the arguments against capital punishment, other than to recall that all methods in use, except lethal injection, are designed to cause pain as well as kill. Several electrocutions in recent years have taken more than fifteen minutes to kill the condemned man, and meanwhile the has been severely burnt. How can it serve the purposes of a modern society to condone such torture?

What is relevant to the interests of bioethicists, however, is the issue of the involvement of physicians in capital punishment. While lethal injections may be the least inhumane form of execution, they are also the form most likely to need the assistance of health care personnel acting in direct contravention of their duty to preserve life. …

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