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Massachusetts Medical Society




Two major aspects of the death penalty in the United States directly involve physicians: how the death penalty is carried out and who is subject to execution. As a matter of constitutional law, both are governed by the prohibition against “cruel and unusual” punishment in the Eighth Amendment. The meaning of “cruel and unusual,” unlike every other part of the U.S. Constitution, is determined by public opinion as it reflects society's evolving standards of decency. With regard to how the death penalty is carried out, the role of physicians in capital punishment has been controversial for more than two decades. As traditional methods of execution, such as hanging, electrocution, and the gas chamber, have been rejected by the courts as cruel and unusual, lethal injection, with its aura of medical legitimacy, has become the almost universal method of choice in the United States. “Killing with kindness” by lethal injection has had a major role in continued public support for the death penalty. Physicians can play many parts in capital punishment, including preparing the prisoner for execution, supervising the execution, and pronouncing the prisoner dead, most of which are considered unethical. A physician invented the guillotine, and physicians regularly supervised executions — from the naval surgeon who made sure that the hanging of Melville's Billy Budd was “scientifically conducted” to the physician who pinned a white circle over Gary Gilmore's heart as a target for the firing squad.


From The New England Journal of Medicine, George J. Annas, Moral Progress, Mental Retardation, and the Death Penalty, Volume 347, Page 1814 Copyright ©(2002) Massachusetts Medical Society. Reprinted with permission.

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