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Dr. Arthur Zitrin, Anti-Death Penalty Advocate and Bioethicist, Dies at 101

by Scott Grammer

Dr. Arthur Zitrin died at age 101 on May 11, 2019. He was a psychiatrist and leading bioethicist who believed that doctors should take no part in lethal injections. His son Richard, an attorney and professor of legal ethics, said Zitrin died of chronic lung disease complicated by a stroke.

According to NYU Center for Bioethics founding director William Ruddick, Dr. Zitrin “sued the Georgia State Board of Medical Examiners to expel any physician who took part in an execution, giving the false appearance of a humane killing. Although his case was dismissed on technical grounds, his novel tactic has been widely noted and honored by lawyers’ organizations.” Zitrin sued the Board after filing a complaint against a doctor who had participated in an execution. [See: PLN, Feb. 2005, p.23].

Based in part on Dr. Zitrin’s ethical objection to capital punishment, the American Medical Association filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in the recent case of Bucklew v. Precythe, 139 S.Ct. 1112 (2019). It stated, “Society wants to delude itself into a belief that capital punishment no longer represents a weighted moral choice, but is now somehow scientific – nearly antiseptic. This delusion, however, cheapens life and makes its extinction easier.”

The brief added, “By refusing to participate in capital punishment, even when sanctioned by a free society, physicians are making a statement – even if symbolically – that their role is not to serve the state as experts in killing, but to minister to their patients as healers.”

“I think it’s a totally improper role for a physician to be complicit with the state in killing people because it’s not the role of a doctor to do that,” Dr. Arthur Zitrin had said. “The role of a doctor is to heal and to preserve life, whenever there is a possibility of doing so.” 

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Sources: nytimes.com, ama-assn.com, casetext.com, wp.nyu.edu, as.nyu.edu