Arguments from Side Effects

EFFECTS ON PROFESSIONALS. Executions are carried out by officials who are not always hardened to their task, and at times they rely on the services of medical people, who have sworn to preserve life. The burdens of those who officiate and serve in these ways; the suffering of those who are close to the convicted person; and the ill effects on society at large of public hangings, gassings, or electrocutions are sometimes thought to constitute an argument against capital punishment over and above the argument from cruelty to the offender.

The side effects on medical personnel have recently been brought into prominence in the United States by the use of lethal injection. The method involves intravenous injection of a lethal dose of barbiturate as well as a second drug, such as tubocurarine or succinylcholine, that produces paralysis and prevents breathing, leading to death by asphyxiation. Doctors have sometimes had to check that the veins of the convicted person were suitable for the needle used and, where death took longer than expected, to attend and give direction during the process of execution. In Oklahoma, which was the first state to adopt lethal injection as a method of execution, the medical director of the Department of Corrections is required to order the drugs to be injected; the physician in attendance during the execution itself has to inspect the intravenous line to the prisoner's arm and also pronounce him dead.

Of course, doctors have been in attendance at executions carried out by other methods, and some of the moral objections to their involvement are applicable no matter which method is used. What is different about intravenous injection, in the opinion of some writers (e.g., Curran and Cassells), is that it involves the direct application of biomedical knowledge for the taking of life. This practice is often said to be in violation of the Hippocratic Oath (Committee on Bioethical Issues of the Medical Society of the State of

New York); and many national and international medical associations oppose the involvement of doctors in the death penalty. The fear that nurses might assist at executions led the American Nurses Association in 1983 to declare it a "breach of the nursing code of ethical conduct to participate either directly or indirectly in legally authorized execution."

The conflict between providing medical services to further an execution and abiding by the Hippocratic Oath makes the moral problem facing doctors particularly sharp, but other professionals may face difficulties as well. Judges and lawyers may be caught up unwillingly or reluctantly in prosecutions that will lead to the imposition of the death sentence. They, too, have a reason for withdrawing their services if they are sincerely opposed to capital punishment; but if all the professionals with qualms acted upon them, the legal process, and the protections it extends to those accused of capital crimes, might be compromised as well (Bonnie). This argument probably understates the differences between legal and medical professionals: the latter recognize a duty of healing and of relieving pain; the former are committed to upholding the law and seeing that justice is done, which does not necessarily conflict with participation in a regime of execution.

EFFECTS ON PERSONS CLOSE TO THE CONDEMNED AND ON SOCIETY. In addition to the effects of the death penalty on involved professionals, the effects on persons close to condemned prisoners are sometimes cited in utilitarian arguments against the death penalty (Glover). These effects are undoubtedly unpleasant, but it is unclear whether they are to be traced to the existence of capital punishment or to the commission of the crimes classified as capital. As for the effects on society at large, they are harder to assess. Samuel Romilly, who campaigned successfully for a reduction in the very large number of capital offenses recognized in English law at the beginning of the 1800s, maintained that "cruel punishments have an inevitable tendency to produce cruelty in people." In fact, Romilly's success in law reform owed something to the benevolence of juries, who had consistently, and often against evidence, found accused people innocent of capital offenses as minor as shoplifting. Whoever was made cruel by the existence of cruel punishments, it was not ordinary English jurors. Judges avoided imposing the death penalty for minor crimes by transporting criminals to the colonies.

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