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Doctors and executions

After two refuse to assist a lethal injection in California, debate over end-of-life ethics grows.

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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 other drugs.

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 authorized execution."

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."


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