The Ethical "Elephant" in the Death Penalty "Room"
American Journal of Bioethics 2008 October; 8(10): 45-50
The United States Supreme Court recently ruled that execution by a commonly used protocol of drug administration does not represent cruel or unusual punishment. Various medical journals have editorialized on this drug protocol, the death penalty in general and the role that physicians play. Many physicians, and societies of physicians, express the opinion that it is unethical for doctors to participate in executions. This Target Article explores the harm that occurs to murder victims' relatives when an execution is delayed or indefinitely postponed. By using established principles in psychiatry and the science of the brain, it is shown that victims' relatives can suffer brain damage when justice is not done. Conversely, adequate justice can reverse some of those changes in the brain. Thus, physician opposition to capital punishment may be contributing to significant harm. In this context, the ethics of physician involvement in lethal injection is complex.
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