“Do no harm”

July 26, 2006

A few days ago, a judge in Missouri temporarily halted all executions in that state due to his concerns over the process of lethal injection. You can read the NYTimes article about it here. It seems that the current executioner, an anonymous doctor, is “dyslexic” and claims that he sometimes engages in “improvising” when it comes to the drug mixture. He stated, ““So it’s not unusual for me to make mistakes.” Well, good for the judge for putting a hold on things, but then the judge made an error, in my mind.

The judge also called for a board-certified anesthesiologist to evaluate Missouri’s system of lethal injection. So the state sent out a letter to the 298 such people in the area. All of them have declined to participate. And good for them, too. I did always think that that part of the Hippocratic oath was to do no harm. Strange, then, that doctors preside over execution now.

When doctors execute criminals via lethal injection of drugs, we can say it was “a medical procedure.” In Thomistic terms, the only way execution is a medical procedure is in its “accidents.” However, in its “substance,” it continues to be publicly mediated murder of a human being, ostensibly to punish and prevent others from becoming criminals. However, there is no debate on whether such a punishment or prevention is effective: it is not. With this proviso, the “substance” of the act is reduced to murder, pure and simple. In a grotesque, yet increasingly common, twist of meanings, the caregiver (doctor) becomes the killer. We try not to think of this by focusing on the superficial, on the procedural, on the clinical. The problem with the dyslexic doctor is not that he was bad at performing his procedure but that he was called on (and willing) to kill.

So, here’s the problem. The judge wants Missouri’s criminals to be snuffed out by better doctors, ones who don’t remind us that the result of their ministrations will be death.

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