by M. Gregg Bloche, M.D., professor of law at Georgetown and author of The Hippocratic Myth.
Credit the State of Utah for bringing back the firing squad.
Two months ago, the state made the rifleman its method of killing when lethal drugs aren’t available. Health professionals and drug companies are saying “no” to participation in executions, and this spring, the trade association representing America’s pharmacists said it would “discourage” them from purveying their own lethal drug mixes on death row.
So-called “compounding pharmacies” became death-row suppliers of last resort after Big Pharma got out of the execution business. Not anymore, unless some pharmacists go rogue by defying their trade body. Executioners around the country are now scrambling to secure drugs that kill, and they’re experimenting with unproven alternatives to the classic, three-drug fatal sequence.
Death by chemistry emerged almost 40 years ago as a response to our contradictory expectations of capital punishment. As crime rates soared in the late seventies and early eighties, so did our retributive ire. America re-embraced the death penalty, ending a ten-year moratorium, when a Utah firing squad shot Gary Gilmore in January 1977.
But we wanted to make the killing “humane.” Less than four months later, Oklahoma enacted the first lethal injection law, based on a protocol developed by a doctor. In the 1980s, as executions again became commonplace, the Oklahoma protocol became the prevailing method.
Medical associations took stands against their members’ participation, but states readily found health professionals willing to flout Hippocratic prohibitions. Some corrections departments kept doctors’ names secret, paid them in cash, and otherwise hid their involvement. State-sanctioned medical killing on the down-low thus became routine.