Life as an Extreme Sport

[The Daily 07-19-2006] Death Made Pretty

Kelly Hills

Death by lethal injection was dealt a blow last month when a U.S. district judge ruled the process may cause extreme pain and suffering before death.

In the United States, death comes in a three-drug cocktail. First, a drug is administered to cause unconsciousness. Another causes paralysis and a third stops the heart.

The objection is that it’s possible for someone not to be fully unconscious after being given the first drug, and feel both the paralysis and the burn of potassium that will stop the heart, causing significant fear and pain.

The court ruled fatal drugs couldn’t be administered without certified medical personnel there to ensure the prisoner is first unconscious before administering further drugs.

Since no medical personnel can be found who are willing to violate the American Medical Association ruling that it would be unethical to participate in involuntary death, there have been no deaths by lethal injection since the ruling.

There is a second method that could be used to bring about death, and it’s one that requires no medical personnel to participate — administer a much larger dose of the drug that causes unconsciousness. The higher dose assures unconsciousness — so no awareness or pain — but it can also cause death by ceasing respiration.

So which matters more: The comfort of the to-be executed, or the comfort of the witnesses to the death? The first method takes only 10 minutes, and because of the paralysis, the prisoner appears calm and relaxed.

The second method becomes visually difficult for witnesses: the unconscious prisoner could jerk and spasm for upwards of 45 minutes before death.

I believe that too many people on death row are there falsely, due to the failings of science or the legal system. But I also believe there are people there who’ve admitted to their crimes, or for whom the evidence is more than overwhelming.

In general, these people are so heinous, reform appears impossible and it’s in society’s best interest if they were humanely euthanized.

The innocence issue aside, it takes entirely too long to move from sentencing to execution. We change so much in 20 years that we’re quite literally not the same person — our cells have died and been reborn and died again almost three times over. Multiple biological changes have occurred, and that’s not even beginning to consider the mental and emotional ones.

Secondly, there’s the objection of pain and suffering. Yes, the person is being executed — but I don’t think that means we should cause pain in the process. The supposedly “humane” death by injection is fraught with problems and pain, but a serene death for the prisoner is disturbing to witness.

Of course, we opt to comfort the witness and not the person being executed. It makes me wonder a bit at our attitude toward death: It’s OK, so long as it’s pretty and serene … ?

Is this just a manifestation of our general desire to have death be neat and tidy, a further extension of our attempt to sanitize dying? In our desire for neat appearances to comfort the vision we have of our own deaths, do we take the fast and cruel approach because it’s prettier?

I think most likely, yes.