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Rethinking the Ethics of Physician Participation in Lethal Injection Execution Physicians should make their own decisions about whether they will participate.

The ethical propriety of physician participation in lethal injection executions in the United States stands in serious question, despite organized medicine’s longstanding and absolute prohibition of it. Since lethal injection executions involving physicians will continue, it is time both to revisit the substantive moral grounds for a ban on physician participation and to reach a more definitive public resolution of the conflict between professional ethics and the state’s desire to impose this punishment in a humane manner. 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.

The ethical propriety of physician participation in lethal injection executions in the United States stands in serious question, despite organized medicine’s longstanding and absolute prohibition of it. Since lethal injection executions involving physicians will continue, it is time both to revisit the substantive moral grounds for a ban on physician participation and to reach a more definitive public resolution of the conflict between professional ethics and the state’s desire to impose this punishment in a humane manner. 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.

Lawrence Nelson and Brandon Ashby, "Rethinking the Ethics of Physician Participation in Lethal Injection Execution," Hastings Center Report 41, no. 3 (2011): 28-37.