“Somebody’s gotta do it”


capital Doctors who participate in torture and capital punishment are unlikely to be hailed as role models for their colleagues. The American Board of Anesthesiology has even declared that it might decertify members who participate in lethal injections.

However, two articles in the latest Hastings Center Report suggest that there is a place for complicity. Even in a torture chamber or on a gurney, people still need healing hands to staunch the blood or to palliate the suffering. Who else will do it?

On capital punishment, Lawrence Nelson and Brandon Ashby of Santa Clara University argue:

“Though there are good arguments against physician participation in executions, physicians should be allowed to make their own decisions about whether they will participate, and professional medical organizations should not flatly destroy the careers of those who do.”

“We contend that, though the traditional ethical arguments against physician participation are not without merit, they are not persuasive enough to justify a total ban on physician involvement. When principled and morally serious arguments lead to different conclusions about what physicians as medical professionals may do, individual physicians typically are allowed by their colleagues to make their own decisions about the proper use of their medical knowledge and skills.

“Hence, professional medical organizations should allow physicians to participate in executions on the basis of their own consciences; and although we do not oppose other forms of sanction, we believe they should not impose organizational sanctions that significantly impede or destroy physicians’ ability to practice medicine.”

On the participation of doctors in torture, Chiara Lepora of the University of Denver and Joseph Millum of the National Institutes of Health argue:

“Doctors sometimes find themselves presented with a grim choice: abandon a patient or be complicit in torture. Since complicity is a matter of degree and other moral factors may have great weight, sometimes being complicit is the right thing to do...

“Medical complicity in torture, like other forms of involvement, is prohibited both by international law and by codes of professional ethics. However, when the victims of torture are also patients in need of treatment, doctors can find themselves torn. To accede to the requests of the torturers may entail assisting or condoning terrible acts. But to refuse care to someone in medical need may seem like abandoning a patient and thereby fail to exhibit the beneficence expected of physicians.” ~

The editor of the Hastings Center Report clearly felt uneasy about showcasing these views. “I want it clear that publishing the articles does not necessarily mean I or others at the Center think they are right,” wrote Greg Kaebnick. ~ Hastings Center Report,  May-June 2011




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