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Position Statements

Capital punishment

 Categories:  Ethics and Professionalism   Adopted: Jan 2007  | Amended: Jun 2009  Print Friendly Version  |   Share this item

In North Carolina Dept. of Correction v. North Carolina Medical Board, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that while the North Carolina Medical Board does “retain disciplinary power over a licensed medical doctor who participates in an execution,” the Board “may not discipline or threaten discipline against its licensees solely for participating in the execution alone.” Consistent with the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Board will not take any disciplinary action against a physician for participation in an execution.

The North Carolina Medical Board does, however, continue to take the position that physician participation in capital punishment is a departure from the ethics of the medical profession. The North Carolina Medical Board cites the provisions of AMA Code of Medical Ethics Opinion 2.06 (printed below) as an accurate statement of the professional ethics of physician participation in executions.

Relevant Provisions of AMA Code of Medical Ethics Opinion 2.06
An individual’s opinion on capital punishment is the personal moral decision of the individual. A physician, as a member of a profession dedicated to preserving life when there is hope of doing so, should not be a participant in a legally authorized execution. Physician participation in execution is defined generally as actions which would fall into one or more of the following categories: (1) an action which would directly cause the death of the condemned; (2) an action which would assist, supervise or contribute to the ability of another individual to directly cause the death of the condemned; (3) an action which could automatically cause an execution to be carried out on a condemned prisoner.

Physician participation in an execution includes, but is not limited to, the following actions: prescribing or administering tranquilizers and other psychotropic agents and medications that are part of the execution procedure; monitoring vital signs on site or remotely (including monitoring electrocardiograms); attending or observing an execution as a physician; and rendering of technical advice regarding execution.

In the case where the method of execution is lethal injection, the following actions by the physician would also constitute physician participation in execution: selecting injection sites; starting intravenous lines as a port for a lethal injection device; prescribing, preparing, administering, or supervising injection drugs or their doses or types; inspecting, testing, or maintaining lethal injection devices; and consulting with or supervising lethal injection personnel.

The following actions do not constitute physician participation in execution: (1) testifying as to medical history and diagnoses or mental state as they relate to competence to stand trial, testifying as to relevant medical evidence during trial, testifying as to medical aspects of aggravating or mitigating circumstances during the penalty phase of a capital case, or testifying as to medical diagnoses as they relate to the legal assessment of competence for execution; (2) certifying death, provided that the condemned has been declared dead by another person; (3) witnessing an execution in a totally nonprofessional capacity; (4) witnessing an execution at the specific voluntary request of the condemned person, provided that the physician observes the execution in a nonprofessional capacity; and (5) relieving the acute suffering of a condemned person while awaiting execution, including providing tranquilizers at the specific voluntary request of the condemned person to help relieve pain or anxiety in anticipation of the execution.