Death Penalty: Ethics in Biomedics

For decades, the death penalty has taken its place in the group of controversial topics. Philosophers, scientists, biologists, physicians, and people from various professions have asserted their ideas on the ethics of death penalty. The intentional action to kill a human being for his/her “wrongdoing” is what sparks the argument against death penalty. In the light of morality, killing a human being is considered as a crime and looked upon strongly. But what if one commits a crime that has a huge impact on the societies? Would he deserve to be killed? This question is the main argument that distinguishes supporters of death penalty from those of critics. While a definite conclusion in this matter is not yet arrived, another controversial dilemma is put forth by the critics. “Is medical participation in the death penalty contradictory?” This question is strongly relevant with the controversy of death penalty due to the ambiguity of whether the death penalty itself is ethical. Namely, a physician participating in an “unethical” action in contrast with their careers is the critical dilemma critics argue. Moreover, assuming that the death penalty is unethical, this is not the only concern critics carry. They also claim that participating in the death penalty is in fact a total contradiction to their purpose in life and career.

Before becoming a professional physician, members take an oath called the “Hippocratic Oath”. In this statement, they swear that they will do “no harm”. Multiple critics argue that the participation of these physicians in the death penalty is definitely contradicting the Hippocratic Oath (Thorburn).

Moreover, some even claim that by hiding under the cover of “medical help”, the death penalty is purposely being indirectly legalized under the eyes of the world (Payne 1207) Simply, this means that the use of lethal injection in the death penalty actually also serve to make the action of death penalty be seen as rather “innocent”. In this paper, I will argue that it is not ethical for physicians to participate in the death penalty.

At first, I would like to talk about the concept of death penalty and some of its aspects. It is crucial for one to be able to observe the concept of death penalty from multiple perspectives in order to reach to a conclusion on whether physicians should participate in it. Just like how criminals are being imprisoned for their crimes, death penalty has been seen as the ultimate or final solution for atypical violent crimes by many states. The purpose of the death penalty is to punish the certain individual for the crime he/she committed. Although debatable, death could also be considered the worst degree of punishment by many people. On the other hand, physicians by many people and the general public are identified as people who provide medical assistance to ones that are in need. It would be contradictory or physicians to intentionally commit a murder or any action that does not parallel with their purpose of being a physician.

The ethics of death penalty is already a huge controversy itself. However, when an individual whose goal is to make others live participates in such an action, the public and critics undeniably retaliate against it. Just how an ambulance intentionally crashing into a person is contradictory, physician participation in the death penalty is not any different.

Kim Marie Thorburn, in her paper “Physicians and the Death Penalty” states:

Medical involvement in executions occurs to relieve society’s uncertainty that the ultimate and irreversible punishment can be fairly and justly administered, but this service to society cannot be shown to outweigh the duty of beneficence. The decisive benefit to society of an execution cannot be demonstrated. The principle of beneficence dictates that physicians must not be involved in executions (Thorburn 639).

In this statement, Thorburn argues that although physician participation in the death penalty does in fact serve as a “relief” in people’s eye. This means that when physicians take a role in the death penalty, the cruel appearance and the violence of death penalty is less intense in people’s eyes. Actually, I agree with Thorburn on this matter. Note that the public image of a typical physician is regarded as a person who is responsible, caring, and simply a “savior”. Due to this reason, physicians participating in the death penalty do in fact serve as a relief in people’s eye. Consequently, this might in fact be considered as a service to the public. However, Thorburn immediately also argues that this service cannot outweigh the duty of beneficence. I agree with Thorburn because although serving as a relief in people’s eye could be considered as a positive effect, the significance of this cannot be higher than physician’s duty of beneficence.

The lethal injection that is applied to the victims of death penalty serves towards alleviating the pain criminals go through during this process. However, according to Thorburn, this is not a valid reason for the justification of medical participation. When significant roles and bringing of being a physician is considered, being part of such an action seems to be contradictory. As mentioned a physician’s main goal in his/her career is to help and provide assistance to people who are in need of it cite. In other words, physicians generally aim to contribute to the society both physically and mentally. Therefore, when looked from this perspective, Thorburn’s conclusion that physicians under no circumstance should not participate in the death penalty does hold to be true.

Another similar but significant claim is made by Donald Payne. In his paper “Why Physicians Should Oppose Death Penalty”, he asserts, “Medical tradition and ethics hold that all patients are entitled to adequate medical care, regardless of their economic, social or legal status. Transcending these is the recognition that all members of society have the right to life, a right which physicians are dedicated to preserving” (Payne 1208). Note that one of the most important factors that distinguish the medical field from most of the professions is its justness and indiscrimination. Under no condition, a physician can discriminate against any human being with a specific character, race, condition, and color. If it did, then the purity of the medical field would be dishonored. In other words, conduct wise, it would not be any different than a conservative political party.

Simply, saving lives that might otherwise be lost is the purpose of physicians. On the contrary, the idea behind death penalty is to take the life of the victim for his/her crime. One might argue that the “victim” is a criminal that caused great harm to the society. However as mentioned, it is not up to the medical world to treat that person differently. Obviously if a physician does not want to take any action that will benefit the criminal, he/she cannot cross the line and participate in his/her killing. If they do cross the line and actively participate in the death penalty, then what makes them different from rest of the public? How could one even rely on a physician that actively took a role in killing another human being?

After some controversy on the method of execution of the criminal, a new more “humane” method was established. Since hanging, electric shock, and etc was too cruel, lethal injection came into the minds of officials. Although the intention of coming up with this idea was perhaps to alleviate the pain the criminals go through during execution, this action has also had other effects. Donald Payne writes, “Executions are made to appear less brutal by simulating a helpful medical procedure. This may ease the guilt of society in committing legal killing, but the fact remains that life has been actively taken, with no benefit to the victim” (Payne 1209). Payne argues that by “adjusting” the methods of killing another human being, the idea of death penalty is being legalized in the eyes of the public.

I agree with Payne because when the medical field does participate in the death penalty by the method of lethal injection, the public tends to judge the ethics of death penalty in parallel with the properties of the medical field. Basically, the positive role of physicians and the medical field among the society covers the unethical aspects of death penalty when physicians participate in it. Note that the effect of someone dying on the electric chair when compared to “lethal injection” would be definitely seen more brutal in the eyes of the public. I am not claiming that this the only sole purpose of lethal injection. However, by covering the brutality of death penalty, the action of executing some human being is in fact being legalized.

Consider this comparison. In a hypothetical world, the government changed the method of lethal injection to burning the criminals alive. How logical would it be for fireman to actively be involved in such a procedure? It would not only be illogical, but it is highly probable that the main role of fireman in the eyes of the society would be altered. Obviously, burning people alive sounds far more cruel and inhumane then lethal injection. However, the analogy is the same. The sole purpose of fireman in their career is to save people from fire and such natural disasters. If instead they commit actions that are totally contradictory to their main careerthan this would definitely be a contradiction.

One can even take this analogy far ahead and make similar comparisons. What if ambulances were used to punish people by crashing them due to their wrongdoings and crimes? Simply, in a world where actions that are contradictory to people’s main dedications and goals prevail, one should not expect harmony and peace. Moreover, what would be the distinguishing character of a fireman, and etc if those people were used for purposes that does not parallel with their careers. Similarly, if physicians keep participating in the death penalty, how could the general public rely on the liability of the medical field and its actions?

One might argue that the purpose of physicians participating in the death penalty is not intentionally killing the criminal. Instead, they are actually helping the criminal by alleviating the pain he/she will eventually go through. Although this has its true sides, the overall negative impact of physicians participating in the death penalty is far more serious then the positive impact it might have on the criminal.

Although the physician might greatly serve the criminal as a person by alleviating the pain he/she will go through, what about the negative impact on the society that they physician is causing by participating in such an action? Namely, the consequences of these two actions are undeniably different in scale and significance.Although most physicians might be participating in the death penalty for other reasons, the result of them participating ends up with some human being losing his/her life in addition to the negative impact to the society. Interestingly, a rather unusual analogy could be presented. Note that while a criminal commits crime, most of them do it for purposes other than physically killing the victim itself. There might be several reasons such as money, anger, pride, and etc. Of course, there are many criminals who kill just for the “fun” of it.

However, we usually don’t regard those kinds of people as rational human beings. Similarly, when physicians participate in the death penalty, they generally do it for reasons other than killing the criminal – “victim”. But as a result a human being is killed by the hands of the physician itself. Although the context of the situation is different, the result is pretty much the same. One might say that the criminal is killing an innocent person, while the physician is killing a guilty criminal. However as mentioned, a person is being killed regardless of its social and legal status. Therefore, physicians participating in the death penalty itself would actually be considered as immoral. Also, it is not the duty of the physician to “end” the life of a criminal. If – according to the law – that person has to be killed, security or military officials should be employed with this “job”. Otherwise, the medical field would begin to demoralize.

Another objection one might claim is that according to this logic, doctors should not be allowed to defend themselves using a deadly force. Note that this situation is not exactly similar due to the fact that the doctor is defending him/herself. If a physician killing a human being is in fact morally correct, this definitely does not necessitate participation in the death penalty to be moral too. Note that the context of the two situations is remarkably different. In one of them, there is a defense mechanism in which the doctor presents. An action that might lead from such a condition would not hold the doctor responsible from the other person’s life. However, while participating in the death penalty, the similar concept does not hold. First of all, regardless of alleviating the pain and etc, the doctor is intentionally killing a person that is not doing any harm to him/her. Second, the doctor is committing an action that is totally contradictory with his/her field. Therefore, the claim that “doctors should not use deadly weapons to defend themselves” does not hold.

In conclusion, physicians that are truly dedicated to their career and purpose should definitely abstain from participating and taking a role in the death penalty. Otherwise, the honor of medical field itself would be disrespected immensely. Moreover, it is very ironical for individuals who dedicate themselves to saving lives to participate in an action that kills other people and take their lives. Therefore, we as humans should do our bests to prevent the indirect demoralization of our society and medical field.

Works Cited

  1. Payne, D. ‘Why Physicians should Oppose the Death Penalty.’CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association journal = journal de l’Association medicale canadienne 136.11 (1987): 1208-9. Print.
  2. Thorburn, K. M. ‘Physicians and the Death Penalty.’ The Western journal of medicine 146.5 (1987): 638-40. Print.
  3. Wilde, H., et al. ‘Physicians and the Death Penalty.’ Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand = Chotmaihet thangphaet82.3 (1999): 317. Print.
  4. Mertz, J. ‘Physicians and the Death Penalty. Physicians’ Participation in the Death Penalty and Executions.’ Tidsskrift for den Norske lægeforening : tidsskrift for praktisk medicin, ny række 109.17-18 (1989): 1898. Print.
  5. Fava, G. A. ‘Physicians, Medical Associations and Death Penalty.’ Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics 69.5 (2000): 231-. Print.