A right to be unconscious

Julian Savulescu, Janet Radcliffe-Richards


[Referring to Sinmyee et al] This seems to us to be an important, landmark paper. This is because the issues it addresses are important in their own right: how to ensure death without suffering in jurisdictions where assisted dying (including assisted suicide or euthanasia) is allowed, and also, because the technicalities are the same, in cases of capital punishment by lethal injection. Moreover, the paper shows the potential for the use of anaesthesia in contexts beyond surgery. Anaesthesia in its ordinary uses is intended to facilitate surgery designed to restore a patient to improved health and functioning. In assisted dying, however, there is no question of restoring health. The proposition is to use anaesthesia primarily to prevent suffering in a patient who is about to die and, in this sense, places anaesthesia on a new footing as a primary medical intervention, serving a purpose in its own right.

Savulescu J, Radcliffe-Richards J.  A right to be unconscious. Anaesthesia. 2019 May; 74(5): 557-559

Drawing the line on physician-assisted death

Lynn A. Jansen, Steven Wall, Franklin G. Miller

Journal of Medical Ethics


Drawing the line on physician assistance in physician-assisted death (PAD) continues to be a contentious issue in many legal jurisdictions across the USA, Canada and Europe. PAD is a medical practice that occurs when physicians either prescribe or administer lethal medication to their patients. As more legal jurisdictions establish PAD for at least some class of patients, the question of the proper scope of this practice has become pressing. This paper presents an argument for restricting PAD to the terminally ill that can be accepted by defenders as well as critics of PAD for the terminally ill. The argument appeals to fairness-based paternalism and the social meaning of medical practice. These two considerations interact in various ways, as the paper explains. The right way to think about the social meaning of medical practice bears on fair paternalism as it relates to PAD and vice versa. The paper contends that these considerations have substantial force when directed against proposals to extend PAD to non-terminally ill patients, but considerably less force when directed against PAD for the terminally ill. The paper pays special attention to the case of non-terminally ill patients who suffer from treatment-resistant depression, as these patients present a potentially strong case for extending PAD beyond the terminally ill.

Jansen LA, Wall S, Miller FG. Drawing the line on physician-assisted death. J Med Ethics. 2019;45:190-197.

Navigating the new era of assisted suicide and execution drugs

Sean Riley

Journal of Law and the Biosciences

I. Introduction

Lethal medication provisions are in a precarious state. Over the past decade, pharmaceutical companies have attempted to stamp out the use of their drugs in executions, creating several economic and regulatory hurdles for access to these medications. As a result, patients seeking physician-assisted suicide (PAS) as well as death penalty states aiming to execute their capital offenders have been forced to turn to unregulated and dangerous alternatives for these drugs. This note attempts to unpack the quality, safety, and access issues emerging from these recent changes and to explore the implications for the future of these practices.

In order to fully grasp the exact mechanisms at work, this note will first offer a brief pharmacological description of the lethal medications and detail many technical aspects of their use. The next section provides a historical account of the past decade, illustrating the emergent quality, safety, and access issues. This note then evaluates the competing notions of ‘botched’ executions and ‘complications’ in PAS while analysing the standards set forward to measure safety and efficacy for each. Finally, this note closes by exploring the future of each practice in light of our discussion.

Riley S. Navigating the new era of assisted suicide and execution drugs. Journal of Law and the Biosciences. Volume 4, Issue 2, 1 August 2017, Pages 424–434, https://doi.org/10.1093/jlb/lsx028

Clinicians’ Involvement in Capital Punishment – Constitutional Implications

Nadia N. Sawicki


If capital punishment is constitutional, as it has long been held to be, then it “necessarily follows that there must be a means of carrying it out.”1 So the Supreme Court concluded in Baze v. Rees, a 2008 challenge to Kentucky’s lethal-injection protocol, in which the Court held that the means used by Kentucky did not violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Lethal injection procedures have changed significantly since 2008, and that fact coupled with Oklahoma’s recent botched lethal injection of Clayton Lockett, the latest in a long series of gruesome and error- ridden executions, has raised questions about whether current methods would pass constitutional muster if reviewed by the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, they probably would.

This likelihood may surprise members of the medical and scientific communities who oppose involvement by their professions in implementing the death penalty. Lethal injection, the primary execution method used in all death-penalty states, was adopted precisely because its sanitized, quasi-clinical procedures were intended to ensure humane deaths consistent with the Eighth Amendment. But experiences like Clayton Lockett’s, which result from prisons’ experimentation with untested drugs and reliance on personnel with unverifiable expertise, demonstrate the dearth of safeguards for ensuring that this goal is actually achieved. Some drug companies now refuse to distribute drugs used for executions, pharmacies are reluctant to participate unless their identities are shielded, and organized medicine has taken a stand against physicians’ involvement in capital punishment. Nevertheless, states have demonstrated their willingness to continue with lethal injections, and most federal courts have allowed executions to proceed in the face of constitutional challenges. The time is therefore ripe for the medical and scientific communities to consider, once again, their role in this process.

Sawicki NN. Clinicians’ Involvement in Capital Punishment – Constitutional Implications. N Engl J Med 371;2 nejm.org july 10, 2014

Physicians, Medical Ethics, and Execution by Lethal Injection

Robert D. Truog, I. Glenn Cohen,  Mark A. Rockoff

Journal of the American Medical Association

In an opinion dissenting from a Supreme Court decision to deny review in a death penalty case, Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun famously wrote, “From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.” In the wake of the recent botched execution by lethal injection in Oklahoma, however, a group of eminent legal professionals known as the Death Penalty Committee of The Constitution Project has published a sweeping set of 39 recommendations that not only tinker with, but hope to fix, the multitude of problems that affect this method of capital punishment.

Truog RD, Cohen IG, Rockoff MA. Physicians, Medical Ethics, and Execution by Lethal Injection. JAMA. 2014;311(23):2375-2376. doi:10.1001/jama.2014.6425