Lethal injection: a 'humane' way to kill?
Back in October the Dana Centre hosted a talk about the lethal injection, organised by ReprieveUK, a charity that uses the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners – from Death Row to Guantánamo Bay. It started off with the oddly amusing spectacle of a volunteer ‘murderer’ being strapped into a gurney and receiving a botched administration of life-terminating drugs. Thankfully it was only a mock-up; the hypodermic needle was inserted into a vein beneath the clammy plastic skin of a dummy arm rather than into human flesh. I think it’s also safe to presume that the injected contents weren’t a lethal cocktail of potassium solution combined with barbiturate and paralytic drugs either; but the veils of pretence didn’t stop me and the medically untrained members the audience physically squirming at the scene. We recoiled at the gruesomeness, but there was also something so ludicrous that it was hard at times not to laugh.
Raucous laughter’s the last thing you’d expect at an event called “Executing Justice” and it doesn’t take long for certain members of the audience to ensure the atmosphere turned more solemn. It may be misguided to remind people voluntarily attending a talk about the lethal injection that in some countries public executions and the death penalty are still very much a reality, but that doesn’t stop certain audience members from feeling the need to do so. In case we didn’t pay enough attention in our school history lessons, we’re also informed that real-life executions used to constitute a fun family day out in this country too.
It’s such a mixed audience – and, let’s be honest, these kinds of events would not be as enjoyable without the token oddballs – that it’s hard to tell exactly what people are implying with their comments. Are they suggesting there’s simply no room for humour when dealing with issues of such gravitas? Are they amateur historians keen to talk about their passion? Do they think we should bring back the guillotine? The tone of the first comment-giver implies that she thinks it’s in bad taste for a trained doctor to act out such a macabre pantomime. And unwittingly she’s done all the speakers a favour, because as it later materialises, that’s the entire point.
The medically trained executioner (Tim Crocker-Buque, a doctor at St Barts) might have been able to ham it up enough to make most of us laugh, but the message is deadly seriously; it’s an abuse of medical knowledge to cause unnecessary pain and torment. Often regarded as the domain of the state and government law, debates around the ethics of enforced death often overlook the complexities it presents within the world of medicine. Whilst I imagined that the event would be rather like an old fashioned debate of ‘eye for an eye’ versus ‘forgive thy neighbour’, the murky world of criminal justice and the common misconceptions surrounding the ‘cleanliness’ or ‘humaneness’ of the lethal injection means that the phrase ‘capital punishment’ barely gets a look in.
But the speaker who makes the greatest impression is Vivienne Nathanson, a benign-looking but silver-tongued doctor, a middle-aged woman who I admire increasingly throughout the night. Not only has she been campaigning for this cause since the impressive age of twelve but she shoots down the argument “surely it’s comforting for the families of the victims to see justice being paid” in the less than two sentences. Never have the words “justice” or “humane” had so many loaded inverted commas around them.
Such vehemence in a question and answer session would ordinarily be unnerving, but there’s such conviction and logic in her responses that I start to feel genuinely moved by her humanity. Towards the end of the night the question of euthanasia inevitably rears its head. It comes out oddly phrased and foolishly open to criticism: “what is the difference between using the lethal injection for the death penalty and euthanasia?” As quick off the mark as ever, Nathanson points out that there is no country in which euthanasia and the death penalty legally co-exist. She remarks on the paradox that the countries and states which have the death penalty often prolong the life of people who have attempted suicide unsuccessfully to ensure that they then die at the hands of the state. As for the issue of the legality of euthanasia, she highlights the subtle but important distinction that the terminally ill individual is not asking the state to assist in the ending of life, but to refrain from prosecuting the doctor who does so.