In California this week, two anesthesiologists refused to monitor
the administering of a barbiturate designed to render unconscious
convicted killer Michael Morales before he was to be killed with two
The execution was called off - or, at least, postponed. Death-
penalty opponents cheered. And the roiling debate over the ethics of
medical professionals' involvement in the officially sanctioned
ending of human life got a little hotter.
At issue: Should a healer help the executioner?
Beyond abortion (where the question of when life begins remains
the major debating point), this includes executions carried out by
the state and physician-assisted suicide now legal in Oregon and
being considered in other states.
Similarly, medical ethics are involved in growing questions about
military doctors taking part in the interrogation of prisoners and
the force-feeding of those on a hunger strike.
In the eyes of most professional medical organizations,
physicians have the ethical and professional obligation to do what
they can to make people well, not to help kill them. The American
Medical Association (AMA) code of ethics states, "A physician, as a
member of a profession dedicated to preserving life when there is
hope of doing so, should not be a participant in a legally
While most states now favor lethal drugs in capital punishment,
courts increasingly are taking a skeptical view of a procedure that
critics say violates the Constitution.
"The issue is whether the method the government has chosen to
employ in our case constitutes cruel and unusual punishment," says
Steve Northup, a Richmond, Va., attorney with a client on death row
for gang murders. "There's a lot of scientific opinion out there to
the effect that it causes a great deal of pain."
In the California case, a federal district judge ordered - for
the first time - that licensed medical personnel administer the
In recent weeks, stays of execution have been granted in four
cases, and the US Supreme Court has agreed to hear a Florida case
involving lethal injection.
The California Medical Association has proposed legislation that
would end the role of physicians in capital punishment. In at least
a dozen states, lawmakers are considering proposals that would allow
doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and other medical personnel to become,
in effect, conscientious objectors regarding certain medical
In Oregon, doctors' involvement in end-of-life treatment focuses
on the nation's only law allowing physician-assisted suicide. …