Wednesday, February 22, 2006
This is how you do no harm?
Ok, I just have to say, I really don't get this anesthesiologist California execution thing. I guess the issue is, California wants to execute this guy for horrible crimes, and they want to have anesthesiologists present to make sure he's not suffering unduly. Ok, so far, so good. (I'm not sure how comfortable I am with the death penalty in general, but we'll set that aside and assume that death can be an appropriate punishment from the state. And obviously, preventing undue suffering is a good thing.) So they're all set to execute the guy the night before last, when the anesthesiologist are suddenly, like, "no, we're doctors, and we can't take part in this procedure, because we might be called upon to sedate the guy, which would in some sense sort of be like partly causing his death, and we've promised to first do no harm." And the medical community seems pretty much completely behind this decision. It would be one thing if they were actively taking a stand against the death penalty. "We refuse to participate in this action because it's wrong to kill somebody, and we're lobbying to stop it altogether, and we're exercizign our position of control to prevent the state murder of this guy." If they said that, I'd understand. They're against the death penalty. But that's not what's going on here. They're not opposed to the death penalty in principle. They don't want to prevent the execution. They just don't want to play a role in it themselves -- even if that role could only have the effect of making the execution more humane. This, I submit, is the doctrine of double effect gone insane. If the execution goes forward without the assurances of no undue suffering, then the conscientious objection of these anesthesiologists would have done a good deal of harm. (Unfortunately, the NYT piece I link to doesn't have an in-depth discussion of the reasoning for the objection, or the official view of the anesthesiologist association, or anything like that; I take much of what I say here about the facts from the story I heard on All Things Considered last night. I don't have time to find a link to the appropriate information, sorry.)