Evidence that some executed prisoners suffered excruciating pain has reinvigorated the ethical debate about physician participation in lethal injections. In widely publicized litigation, death row inmates argue that the participation of anesthesiologists in their execution is constitutionally required to minimize the risk of unnecessary suffering. For many years, commentators supported the ethical ban on physician participation reflected in codes of professional medical organizations. However, a recent wave of scholarship concurs with inmate advocates, urging the law to require or at least permit physician participation.
Both the anti- and pro-physician-participation literature share a common premise: the ethics of physician participation should be analyzed independently from the moral status of capital punishment. This considerable literature implausibly divorces the ethics of physician participation from the moral status of the death penalty. Any ethical position on physician involvement requires some judgment about the moral status of the death penalty and the importance of physician involvement. The article examines anti- and pro-participation arguments to show that each one either is unpersuasive without discussion of the death penalty’s moral status or implicitly assumes a view on the social worth of the death penalty.