Over the past year numerous pharmaceutical companies have tried to distance themselves from lethal injections (sometimes voluntarily, sometimes under pressure). Until now, all these efforts involved the use of an anesthetic, the first drug in 3-drug execution protocols, or the only drug in one-drug protocols. First Hospira, then Novartis, Lundbeck, Kayem and Naari have all objected to the use of their anesthetic products in U.S. executions.
Now, Hospira is under fire for pancuronium bromide, which is the second drug in all 3-drug execution protocols in the U.S. Hospira is the sole provider of this drug for executions; it’s a muscle-relaxant that in executions is used to induce paralysis. Paralysis during executions makes the condemned look like he’s peacefully falling asleep even if he’s in excruciating pain. This makes the witnesses to the execution feel better. Ironically, this masking of possible pain is why pancuronium bromide is widely banned in the euthanizing of animals.
Twenty-four doctors have now published an open letter in the medical journal The Lancet, calling on Hospira to prevent its drug from being used in executions. Pancuronium bromide of course has legitimate medical uses, and so far Hospira has resisted restricting access to the drug for fear of “jeopardizing the health of patients.”
Lethal injection has medicalized executions, undermining the “do no harm” philosophy at the core of medical ethics. Now, resistance to medicalized executions may result (indeed has already resulted) in drug shortages that harm totally innocent patients. It’s a no-win situation for the medical profession, and that won’t change as long as legitimate drugs are used for the illegitimate purpose of executions.