Since Ohio starting executing people in 1999, there have been 8 lethal injections. Those killed include a suicidally depressed man who begged to be put to death, a mentally retarded man, and a man who was probably innocent. For each execution, the procedure looks similar: The inmate lies down on a table that looks like it belongs in an operating room. Intravenous needles are inserted into both arms. Three drugs are infused: sodium pentothal, which is supposed to render the "patient" unconscious, a drug that paralyzes all skeletal muscles (so breathing ceases), and finally potassium chloride, a chemical that arrests the heart. Lethal injection was designed to simulate a medical procedure, and it requires medical knowledge. Who is performing these executions?

Reginald Wilkinson, director of Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, won't answer that question. But if lethal injection in Ohio is like other states, most likely it is medical professionals (doctors and nurses) who are either directly participating in these executions or training and supervising the prison staff. But medical professionals who participate in lethal injections are violating the ethical principles of their professions. When Dr. Bruce Martin, medical director, enters the execution chamber to pronounce an inmate dead, he is violating his professional ethics.

The American Medical Association ethical guidelines state that "a physician should not be a participant in a legally authorized execution" and provides a list of actions that are prohibited. The American Nursing Association states that "participation in executions is... contrary to the fundamental goals and ethical traditions of the profession." Why do these organizations prohibit participation? Because doctors and nurses dedicate their lives to healing, not killing. When medical professionals assist in a killing - even a state sanctioned killing - it defiles not only those who participate, but all members of the medical profession.

We must remember that in 1939, another government encouraged doctors to become involved in state-sponsored killing. It was called the T-4 program, and it was Nazi Germany's program to rid the country of not only criminals, but also all mentally and physically disabled individuals. Hitler's chief T-4 administrator once said of this killing program, "the syringe belongs in the hand of a physician."

Sadly, research has shown that most doctors (over 95%) are completely unaware of the AMA's ethical guidelines regarding capital punishment. Medical societies such as the Ohio State Medical Association, and the Columbus Medical Association spend so much time on issues like so called "tort reform," that ethical issues like physician participation in capital punishment are never on their agenda. But it is time for the OSMA and the CMA to spend less time worrying about doctors' wallets and more time worrying about what's in their hearts and minds.

If you want to do your part to help end capital punishment, bring a copy of the ethical guidelines of the AMA and the ANA to your next doctor's appointment. Discuss it with the physician and nursing staff. Let them know that lethal injection is a stain on the face of medicine, and the only way to end this medical charade for murder is to abolish capital punishment. For the sake of their professions, they, too, should work towards that goal.

The author:
Jonathan I. Groner MD is a pediatric surgeon, director of the Trauma Program at Children's Hospital and Clinical Associate Professor of Surgery at the Ohio State University School of Medicine and Public Health He is the author of two articles in international journals on the topic of physician participation in lethal injection: "Lethal Injection: A Stain on the Face of Medicine," which appeared in the November 2, 2003 issue of BMJ (British Medical Journal, and "Lethal Injection and the Medicalization of Capital Punishment in the United States," which appeared in 2002 in Health and Human Rights: An International Journal.