Why Not Have Veterinarians Give Lethal Injections?

Today's the first Monday in October, meaning the start of a new Supreme Court term, and much of the buzz concerns a recently granted Kentucky case presenting the question whether lethal injection is a "cruel and unusual" method of execution. My veterinarian (okay, my dog's veterinarian) said to me shortly after the case was granted that the issue arises because of the medical profession's decision to forbid physicians to participate in executions. He (my vet) said that he could execute prisoners in a humane way, although he wasn't exactly volunteering.

To be sure, the actual case presents the question whether the particular three-drug "cocktail" used in actual lethal injections poses too high a risk of severe pain for the expiring condemned criminal, even if administered properly. But part of that risk is surely due to the non-participation of doctors. So here's a tough question: Suppose that a method of execution is painless when carried out by one with skill in the procedure but that the people with the necessary training are forbidden by professional rules from participating in the procedure. Should the procedure be held facially invalid? Invalid as applied in all cases in which a physician does not participate, which is, in effect, almost all cases. "Almost all" rather than "all" because some physicians secretly participate (as discussed in a fascinating chapter in Atul Gawande's book Better.)

But now suppose that my veterinarian is right. Shouldn't the state either be able to find veterinarians willing to perform executions or to train people who are not MDs in the safe administration of lethal injection? If so, then it's hard to see what the big fuss about this case is. At most, a ruling invalidating lethal injections will delay some executions while the states figure out how to do it with less pain or move on to some other method. As I told Reuters (on the third page of the story that begins here): "Like the guillotine and the electric chair, lethal injection was heralded as a scientific advance, only to result in cruelty in practice," but that in turn suggests that the thirst for executions (or "justice," if you prefer) is great enough that some other method will be found.