AMA Journal of Ethics®

Illuminating the art of medicine

Journal of Ethics Header

AMA Journal of Ethics®

Illuminating the art of medicine

Virtual Mentor. November 2000, Volume 2, Number 11.

Journal Discussion

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Physicians' Attitudes about Involvement in Lethal Injection

Readers are referred to an article by Neil Farber et al in the Archives of Internal Medicine to discuss whether it is appropriate for physicians to administer lethal injections for capital punishment when medical society policies forbid physician participation.

Farber N, Davis EB, Weiner J, Jordan J, Boyer G, Ubel PA. Physicians' attitudes about involvement in lethal injection for capital punishment. Arch. Intern. Med.. 2000; 160:1912-2916.

Questions for Discussion

Contrary to established medical society policies prohibiting physician involvement in the administration of lethal injections (see, for example, AMA Policy H-140.950 On Physician Participation in Capital Punishment), physicians do participate in such activities.  In addition a majority of physicians surveyed in this study who do not participate in such activities "condoned the actions of their colleagues in participating in cases of lethal injection for the purpose of capital punishment."  

1. Should physicians engage in practices prohibited by professional guidelines?

2. If so, what does it mean to be part of a profession? 

3. The practice of lethal injection is directly contrary to the medical profession's aim of serving the patient's best interest, although it serves the aim of the state and, perhaps, the best interest of the larger community.  Does the medical profession have a social responsibility to be involved in lethal executions?

4. How should the medical profession define and balance its responsibilities to individuals and to society? 

 Articles and books on bioethics continue to expand in both number and the range of topics discussed. Between 1989 and 1998, more than 4,000 articles alone were published in MEDLINE-cited journals. Some of the major topics examined are the patient-physician relationship, end-of-life care, reproductive medicine, genetics, and the allocation of scarce medical resources. From these publications, we will be selecting a handful of articles and chapters, some of which reflect issues of perennial concern to physicians, others reflect more recent quandries resulting from advances in biomedical technology. 

A new article or book chapter will be featured every month, accompanied by questions intended to guide readers along the path of ethical reasoning and to promote discussion.

The viewpoints expressed on this site are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the AMA.