Local News

Role Of Physicians At State Executions Up For Debate

Posted July 19, 2006

— A doctor takes an oath to do everything he or she can to protect life. However, North Carolina law requires a doctor to be present at an execution. On Wednesday, members of the North Carolina Medical Board considered how to handle this dilemma.

A committee of the North Carolina Medical Board on Wednesday recommended a policy that "physician participation in capital punishment is a departure from the ethics of the medical profession within the meaning" of state statutes.

However, the committee said it also recognizes that state law requires a physician to be present during executions. Physicians who observe an execution should not be disciplined, the committee said.

"However, any physician who engages in any verbal or physical activity that facilitates the execution may be subject to discipline," the statement says.

The committee struggled with the conflict between state law and the strict American Medical Association position, said Dr. Art McCulloch, chairman of the medical board's policy committee and a Charlotte anesthesiologist.

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    The AMA equates the presence of a doctor with participating.

    When asked if it's a violation of ethics for a physician to be present under the current system, McCulloch said, "I think that we need to look into it."

    The issue arose after physicians wrote the board earlier this year seeking guidance because a condemned prisoner's lawyers asked that an anesthesiolgist be present at his execution. The prison system decided, with court approval, to use instead a machine to monitor the man's consciousness.

    In addition, a doctor and a nurse are present during executions in a room near the execution chamber where they watch heart and consciousness monitors.

    McCulloch said board investigators will ask the Department of Correction whether doctors have ever done anything other than observe an execution.

    "By allowing this kind of thing, you risk the trust that society puts in us," said UNC Medical School professor Dr. Charles Vanderhorst.

    Doctors who testified at the meeting pointed out that the physician who is present at executions is often called upon to intervene when things go wrong.

    "Even though they have no role, they all end up getting involved because they have to," said Vanderhorst. "The heart keeps on beating, the anesthesia isn't enough, the line can't be started."

    Vanderhorst told McCulloch that he would support a policy that allowed a doctor to be present without jeopardizing his medical license unless he participated in any way.

    Retired UNC medical professor Dr. Arthur Finn told the committee that the presence of a physician at an execution "will have something to do with the care of another person" and violates traditional principles that doctors try to preserve life.

    "I believe strongly that physicians have no place in the action of a state trying to execute anyone," Finn said.

    After listening to the testimony, the four committee members decided the position statement needed more work. They will consider the issue again at their September meeting.

    The next execution at Central Prison is scheduled for Aug. 18.

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