Life as an Extreme Sport

California Execution(s) Postponed

California has postponed the immediate execution of an inmate because two anesthesiologists recruited to help inforce a judge’s ruling about how the execution had to take place to avoid cruel and unusual punishment have backed out.

The unnamed anesthesiologists have said that if Michael Morales, the inmate, were to wake up or appeared to suffer pain, they would have to intervene, and that intervention would be medically unethical. This might leave you scratching your head, but the thing is, if the anesthesiologists were to adjust Morales’s medication levels, they would then be participating in his execution, which would be against their oathes as doctors.

Confused yet? After all, doctors are required to attend executions and monitor the patient/inmate, by law. Well, those doctors neatly step around a lot of the ethical “participation” issues by monitoring the patient/inmate remotely, via computers and monitors in another room. They only enter the execution chamber once the patient/inmate is officially dead (as recorded on the monitors) to call it.

In the ruling passed down by Judge Jeremy Fogel, the prison officials could either bring in doctors to insure that Morales was properly anesthetized, or execute him by a lethal overdose of barbituites. Of course, that injection must be provided by someone licensed to inject medications intravenously…


  1. Interesting leaps of logic there. By the same token, A doctor performing telesurgery on a patient isn’t actually performing the surgery, and the patient shouldn’t be billed, right?

    For that matter, I ought to contact my insurance company right away and contest the charges for every time my dentist steps out of the room to push the x-ray button.

    Folks have got to come to terms with the fact that “place” has a different meaning now. We no longer have to be in the same room to communicate instantly or collaborate on projects. If substitutions for physical contact are made, a brick wall has no bearing on a doctor’s connection to the patient.

    With regards to the oath issue, plenty of doctors feel justified in performing abortions, which is as clearly prohibited in the various forms of the oath. How much more of a stretch could it be to rationalize participating in a legal execution, with the aim to reduce suffering?

    Of course, on a personal level, I’m really not too concerned with a bit of suffering on the part of murderers or rapists. It would be a luxury for them to go out more easily than their victims did.

  2. I think my favourite bit of logical derailment is surgeons in general, who take the oath…and yet the oath specifically says that one may not cut the body (technically to cut for stone, or remove kidney stones, but doctor and surgeon were separate concepts for a long time, and any doc cutting a body was reviled – one of the many reasons discection rarely happened).

    That said, I think that the main reason doctors don’t want to be the ones actually adjusting medications, inserting lines, and so on is that technically that would run afoul of the law – doctors are not allowed to kill people in most states, and can be proscicuted for willfully killing a person.

    Now, one would assume that the attorney general wouldn’t file charges against any doctor participating in state-sanctioned executions, but that wouldn’t mean that the family of the inmate couldn’t bring a suit against the doctor themselves. So while doc’s will cite their oath to do no harm to a moral agent (which is how doc’s performing abortions get around the oath – a fetus is not a moral agent), I think the actual rationale lays closer to a legal reason than moral.

    There has been a lot of research done on executions and the effect it has on people. In fact, I think the NYTimes just ran a lengthy article on recent findings showing how people compartmentalize life when they routintely participate in executions (I believe it was a study undertaken in Texas). “Place” becomes hyper-realized for the folks involved, and beyond that, the multiple safeguards and redundancies put in place mitigate any one person feeling like they’re the individual responsible for the death: there are typically several levers to pull to release the paralyzing agent into the IV line, for example, a person per lever, and no one knows which contains the toxin and which is just saline. Two or three guards escort the prisoner and attach him to the chair/gurney. There are multiples to every job, so no one person feels accountable.

    Taking this redundancy into account, put in place to alleviate guilt, I can see the point the anesthesiologists were making – they would be put in the position of being directly responsible, as opposed to tangentally. It wouldn’t really be feasible to have some sort of redundancy system built in, becauase the anesthesiologist would have to notice the discomfort and then act on it; they would know what medication they were giving and so forth. It sort of defeats all the checks put in place to prevent any one person from feeling responsible for taking the life of another.

    I do think, though, that the idea of “place” and how technology is changing it is fascinating, and well worth looking into further – both how people hyperrealize place in reaction to technology and how technology takes down the defining walls of place to begin with.

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