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Executions and ethics

Is there any way for lethal drugs to be administered to condemned prisoners without medical supervision? Is there any way such supervision can be conducted without violation of medical ethics requiring devotion to protecting life rather than taking it? Such questions arose before Texas's execution of a convicted murderer by lethal injection last week. They were not answered by an elaborate system to keep the prisoner from seeing his executioners.

Beyond such uncertainties there is the circumstance that a confederate of the condemned man received not a death penalty but a prison sentence after plea bargaining. The disparity in sentences became part of the basis for a last-minute appeal for stay of execution. Consistency in applying the death sentence has been a basic rationalization for allowing it to escape the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment. But the state objected to the appeal, the federal district court rejected it, and the US Supreme Court let the execution go forward. Three dissenters on the latter body argued that a court of appeals cannot fulfill its obligations ''if a state is permitted to execute a prisoner prior to the consideration and decision of his appeal.''

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Many Americans look beyond such possibilities of injustice to base the case against capital punishment on moral opposition to taking life in any circumstances. Whatever the deterrent effect of the death penalty on private crime - an effect that remains controversial - the argument is that society cannot in conscience condone killing by its own officials.

Even without taking a position on capital punishment, the American Medical Association has adopted a policy against participation in executions by a physician ''as a member of a profession dedicated to preserving life.'' By that reasoning, who would be left to carry out the executioner's task? What reputable profession - or individual, for that matter - is not dedicated to preserving life?

Last week's execution brought together the question of ethics in the official taking of life and the question of justice in doing so. Will the questions be any clearer if states proceed with the lethal injections or other methods of execution scheduled for some 1,150 more Americans sentenced to death?

There is a struggling world trend toward abolishing capital punishment for all offenses. France helped bring the total to 24 countries by the end of last year (with 17 abolishing it for all but exceptional offenses such as war crimes). It is extraordinary, and extraordinarily disappointing, that the United States should be going in the other direction - with even Massachusetts, a one-time leader against the death penalty, now close to new legislation giving it broad application.

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