Prison Physicians Say No To Executions

Thirteen California physicians filed suit last week against the state Department of Corrections and San Quentin State Prison doctors, demanding that the state's superior court put an end to physician participation in the execution of condemned inmates."We have a real concern as to what it does to the profession," said Dr. Kim Thorburn.Dr. Janice Kirsh, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, said the practice of physicians taking part in executions "goes against ethical standards, against the primary ethical standard of 'do no harm.'" Kirsh said that all major state, national, and international medical organizations -- including the American Medical Association, the California Medical Association, the American College of Physicians, and the World Medical Association -- oppose physician participation in executions."They have all very clearly stated that physicians should not in any way participate, not even pronouncing death," she said.Christine May, information officer at the Department of Corrections in Sacramento, said the department is not responding to any of the specifics of the lawsuit at this time. "The only responsibility for the physician in the execution is to sign the death certificate," she said.But attorney Stephen Schear, who is representing the doctors, said physician assistance at executions is both unethical and illegal."We believe physicians do participate at San Quentin and that the practice is unlawful and should be stopped by the courts," Schear said. The California Medical Practices Act prohibits physicians from undertaking unprofessional and unethical conduct.Thorburn, who spent seven years working for the California Department of Corrections (including a three-year stint at San Quentin), said the AMA first registered its opposition to physician participation in 1981."As prison physicians we feel this is an extremely important issue," Thorburn said. "Our concern is the use of clinical skills for nonclinical purposes and what that does to physician-patient trust."Kirsh stressed that the suit is not intended to target the state's prison physicians. "We're not after them," she said. "We want to protect them from having to degrade their profession."But, Kirsh added, the doctors "have actively participated in the previous judicial homicides at San Quentin," although the exact details of their participation were "shielded from the press, in part to shield the physicians and heath care workers who were participating."The state and society "have attempted to make [executions] more humane," Thorburn said. "But who are you making them more humane for?" Having a physician present helps promote "the appearance of humaneness," she added. "There's a certain level of discomfort about the whole process of execution. That's why it's been taken out of the public and put behind walls. It's one of the ways we try to deal with the discomfort."Schear said the plaintiffs are not taking a stance on capital punishment itself but on the ethics of physician involvement. "Ethical standards don't depend on a personal, individual view on a particular issue," he said. The issue "is about what it means to be a physician and the many ways that's being eroded."Schear says the lawsuit did not delay or interfere with the scheduled execution of Keith Daniel Williams, which occurred on May 3 at San Quentin. At this point, he said, "the courts will be doing initial discovery on exactly what the physicians do related to execution." He expects to go to trial within a year."We hope that our case will set a national precedent," Schear said. "In California, the law is quite clear about unethical and unprofessional conduct."

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