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Doctors of Death and the Medicalization of State Murder

Doctors of Death and the Medicalization
of State Murder

by Michael Rigby

Prisoners often wonder if prison medical personnel really have their best interests at heart. But in the case of Sanjeeva Rao, a Georgia prison doctor, there is no doubt. He aims to see them dead.

When the state of Georgia began using lethal injections in 2000, Rao stopped promoting the health of prisoners and started assisting in their executions. Although Rao doesn't give the injections himself, he does ensure the executions are carried out successfully. If the prisoner's heart continues to beat after the deadly drugs are administered, for instance, Rao prescribes more. In 2001, after a nurse jabbed a needle into Jose High, a former drug addict, for 39 minutes in an unsuccessful attempt to find a usable vein, Rao inserted the needle into High's neck so that the execution could proceed.

Even with many states sanctioning doctor-assisted executions, such acts are forbidden by virtually all codes of medical ethics, including those of state medical boards. The American Medical Association's code reads for example, that "a physician, as a member of a profession dedicated to preserving life when there is hope of doing so, should not be a participant in a legally authorized execution."

These physicians are apparently never sanctioned by state medical boards, but many in the medical community believe these doctors of death should be punished. "The state medical boards should just yank the licenses of those people," said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of health research for Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group.

Taking the fight a step further is Dr. Arthur Zitrin, a retired New York University psychiatry professor and former head of psychiatry at Bellevue Hospital. "My major thrust," said Zitrin, "is to identify physicians who have participated in executions in one way or another, with the objective of charging these physicians with Professional misconduct for violating medical ethics."

Zitrin, with the aid of Georgia lawyers Michael Mears and Matthew Rubenstein, planned to file a complaint against Rao with the Georgia medical board in June 2004. "I'm also on the trail of a doctor in Virginia, and one in Illinois," he said.

Doctor participation in state executions is poised to become an even bigger issue. On May 24, 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case brought by Alabama death row prisoner David L. Nelson, whose veins have been damaged from years of drug abuse. Nelson challenged Alabama's plan to make a two inch incision in his arm or leg in order to carry out the execution. "There was no assurance," wrote Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in the opinion, "that a physician would perform or even be present for the procedure." The implication here is that the plan may have been acceptable if a doctor were present. See: Nelson v. Campbell , 124 S. Ct. 2117 (2004).

The rise of lethal injection as the prevalent mode of execution in the U.S. has been fueled by a desire on the part of death penalty supporters to make executions more palatable to the general public. It has also led to the medicalization of state murder. "What's unique about this procedure is that it's specially designed to imitate medical procedures," said Dr. Jonathan I. Groner, a professor of surgery at Ohio State University.

To ensure this euphemistic perception continues, about 25 states currently require or allow doctors to be present at executions. In addition, at least eight states, including Georgia, are pursuing legislation aimed at protecting these pseudo-physicians from professional discipline.

Rao has apparently bought into the concept of medicalized murder, referring to prisoners in medical terms even when he's hastening their death. "I always say `a patient,'" Rao testified in a 2002 lawsuit brought by a condemned prisoner challenging the death penalty as inhumane. "That's by habit."

What Rao and others like him fail to realize, however, is that all the sanitized terms and phony medical procedures in the world cannot legitimize a process that is by its very nature abhorrent, demeaning to everyone involved, and unworthy of a civilized society.

Source: The New York Times

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