Death Row Inmate Execution Pain an Issue, Abortion Pain Ignored

Opinion   |   Fr. Frank Pavone   |   Jun 7, 2011   |   10:22AM   |   Washington, DC

Even from death row, you can change history and save lives.

Two death-sentenced Kentucky prisoners have a grievance which the Supreme Court recently agreed to hear. In the case of Baze v. Rees, the inmates argue that the method of execution most commonly used – that is, lethal injection – violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. In fact, at least half of the death row inmates facing an imminent execution in the last two years have filed suit challenging the chemicals used in lethal injections.

The fact that the high court has agreed to hear this case has caused many states to halt executions until the decision is rendered sometime in 2008.

At issue is not the constitutionality of the death penalty itself, but rather a specific question raised by the type of chemicals used and the method of application. In the 1980s, most of the states that have capital punishment switched over from electrocution to lethal injection, on the theory that injecting a cocktail of poisons would be more painless and humane. Since capital punishment was reinstated three decades ago, nearly 900 of the 1,056 U.S. executions carried out through 2006 were by lethal injection.

The three-drug lethal injection process works like this: First, a sedative is administered through an IV, rendering the inmate unconscious, then a paralyzing agent stops the breathing muscles and finally a shot of potassium chloride stops the heart. But objections have been raised that the method, even when applied properly, leaves open the possibility that the inmate would still be conscious of severe pain but be unable to express it because of the paralyzing effect of the drug. Moreover, because correctional officers, not medical practitioners, administer the fatal dose in most states, the risk of mistakes increases.

So what level of risk of unnecessary pain constitutes crossing the line into “cruel and unusual punishment?” That is the Constitutional issue the Court must decide.

Meanwhile, a similar issue has surfaced in recent years, regarding unnecessary pain inflicted on another group of people scheduled for death. In the last Congress, a bill was introduced that would provide an option for unborn children scheduled to be aborted at 20 weeks or more after fertilization to receive pain reducing medication prior to being dismembered. Each year in the United States alone, over 18,000 abortions take place at 21 or more weeks of pregnancy. These children also would be unable to express the pain they have.

In 1994, an article in the prestigious British medical journal, the Lancet, revealed hormonal stress reactions in the fetus. The article concluded with the recommendation that painkillers be used when surgery is done on the fetus. The authors wrote, “This applies not just to diagnostic and therapeutic procedures on the fetus, but possibly also to termination of pregnancy, especially by surgical techniques involving dismemberment.” In 1991, scientific advisors to the Federal Medical Council in Germany had made a similar recommendation.

How about a stay of execution for the unborn, for the same humanitarian reasons? Note: Father Frank Pavone is the national director of Priests for Life.