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Lethal Injection Executions Could Stop Today

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Lethal injection as a means of execution could soon meet its own demise.
On Friday March 28, the nation's pharmacists will gather in Orlando, FL, for the Annual Meeting of the American Pharmacists Association (APhA). They will face the question of whether to follow the lead of every other major medical association in the United States and ban participation of pharmacists in executions.

To date, some of the world's leading human-rights organizations -- including Amnesty International, the ACLU, Human Rights Watch and the NAACP (as well as 35,000 members of SumOfUs.org) -- have called upon them to do so.

Ever since Europe shut off U.S. access to most drugs used in executions, states have been struggling to find a supply. Now that all major pharmaceutical companies, domestic and foreign, have joined the embargo, state departments of correction have turned to a handful of "compounding pharmacists" to create their own drugs that will, however painfully or slowly, cause the death of the recipient.

Compounding pharmacists don't just dispense drugs, they create their own to their customers' specifications. They are not regulated by the FDA, but have come under increasing scrutiny since 64 people died and more than 700 became seriously ill in 2012 after using drugs prepared by a Massachusetts compounding pharmacy.

Only a handful of compounding pharmacists in the entire nation have agreed to concoct lethal drugs, not always with the best of results. In January, Ohio's execution of Dennis McGuire took an agonizing 24 minutes to complete; weeks earlier in Oklahoma, Michael Lee Wilson cried out that his entire body felt on fire as the drugs entered his veins.

In accepting their pieces of silver, these pharmacists are violating central tenets of APhA's own "Code of Ethics for Pharmacists," which states unequivocally that the "primary obligation of a pharmacist is to individual patients" and mandates that every pharmacist:

  • respects the covenantal relationship between the patient and pharmacist
  • promises to help individuals achieve optimum benefit from their medications, to be committed to their welfare, and to maintain their trust
  • places concern for the well-being of the patient at the center of professional practice
  • respects the autonomy and dignity of each patient
  • promotes the right of self-determination
  • recognizes individual self-worth by encouraging patients to participate in decisions about their health;
  • avoids ... actions that compromise dedication to the best interests of patients.

The American Medical Association has long prohibited any "action which would directly cause the death of the condemned," and any "action which would assist, supervise, or contribute to the ability of another individual to directly cause the death of the condemned." The American Board of Anesthesiology has taken this ban one step further by declaring that any anesthesiologist who participates in executions will lose ABA certification.

Even the Society of Correctional Physicians (SCP) specifically decrees that "the correctional health professional shall not be involved in any aspect of the execution of the death penalty." As the president of the SCP stated, "The primary reason for this stance is that the Society strongly believes that correctional health professionals are obligated to respect human dignity and act in ways that merit trust and prevent harm."

Participation in executions undermines the position of trust that pharmacists enjoy in this nation. A few pharmacists, acting secretly, are bringing the entire pharmaceutical profession into disrepute by using their training and tools to kill their patients without their consent.

Pharmacists as individuals are free to agree with or dissent from executions as public policy, but they must not participate in this process as medical professionals who have sworn an oath to protect life and to put the welfare of the patient at the center of their practice.