Editorial: No end to inhumanity

The State of Washington recently joined the ranks of two others in the United States when Governor Jay Inslee suspended all executions during his tenure. Though a welcome move, it is still only a half-measure as the next governor can overturn the moratorium. Eighteen States have abolished the death penalty. Meanwhile, a Circuit Court judge in Arkansas struck down a 2013 statute that allowed the Department of Corrections to use any form of barbiturate (anaesthetic) without making sure if the chosen drug can indeed cause death. Interventions by several States mark a general shift in lethal-injection policies. If the very act of snuffing out life in the name of death penalty is barbaric and has no place in a civilised world, carrying it out by injection makes the act all the more macabre. What makes it particularly repugnant is the complete disregard to many of the vital aspects that define a civilised society. First, prescription drugs are illegally used as part of a three-drug cocktail to achieve the opposite of what they are intended for. The anaesthetic is the first drug injected to put a convict to sleep. But the supply of the anaesthetic drug, sodium thiopental, dried up when pharmaceutical companies in Europe restricted its use for execution. Many States then turned to alternative drugs and the European companies restricted their supply too. With the European Commission imposing export controls on these drugs and the Food and Drug Administration controlling their import, the supplies truly dried up. Second, in their mindless pursuit of carrying out the death penalty, South Dakota in 2012, followed by a few other States, resorted to the unthinkable — procuring untested and illegal drugs from compounding pharmacies that are not regulated by the FDA.

Third, States have been changing their execution protocols frequently due to drug scarcity; Ohio even started using a single-dose protocol. Since the dosages, and the effectiveness of the drugs in causing painless and immediate death have never before been tested in humans, lethal injections remain nothing but human clinical trials in progress; it is a modern-day equivalent of Nazi doctors experimenting on prisoners. Little wonder that a few convicts have shown visible signs of extreme and prolonged suffering prior to death. These cases fly in the face of the central notion that lethal injection reduces suffering. Finally, an area of extreme concern is the active involvement of medical practitioners in carrying out executions. The involvement of doctors in administering lethal injections in the name of reducing cruelty defies logic and runs counter to their professional ethic of saving lives.

Published in The Hindu on February 24, 2014