The last few years have seen a flurry of controversies about physician involvement in capital punishment in California, Missouri and elsewhere. Organized medicine groups, including the American Medical Association, have said physicians should not participate in executions because their professional duties lie in preserving lives, not ending them.
But what constitutes participation? The latest test of this ethical standard comes from Washington state.
Just before Thanksgiving, the director of health services for the state’s prison system resigned his post prior to the scheduled Dec. 3, 2008, execution of Darold Ray Stenson, who was convicted in 1994 of killing his wife and a business partner.
As the corrections department’s top medical officer, Marc F. Stern, MD, MPH, supervised about 700 physicians, pharmacists, nurses and other health professionals. Dr. Stern said that if any of those staffers helped carry out the execution, the actions would put him “in harm’s way” ethically because he supervised them, albeit indirectly.
The whole shebang.