I am implacably opposed to capital punishment. There are few issues on which I'm so certain. The state should not kill people. As I've said before, humanity is better than that.
It was only a few weeks ago that I learned that the European Union forbids the export of drugs used for killing prisoners in the USA through lethal injection. For perhaps the first time, I felt a real swell of pride at what seemed a surprisingly strong and principled stand. It is rare to see ethics translated to action on this scale.
But today, Owen Dyer's article in the BMJ (paywalled) has given me pause for thought. This excellently-written article discusses, in some detail, the difficulties drug shortages have caused for the lethal injection programme in several states.
Dyer's article talks through a number of horrendous botched executions, as well as the methods (some illegal) by which states have attempted to procure drugs for lethal injections. I found it a deeply thought-provoking piece. Towards the end, Dyer comes to this point:
Arkansas’ attorney general last year called the state’s capital punishment system “completely broken … it’s either abolish the death penalty or change the method of execution.”
Initiatives are now cropping up in state houses to return to more violent methods. These methods are not so far behind us as some imagine. The last execution by firing squad was in 2010, the last by gas chamber was in 1999, and the last hanging occurred in 1996. The last use of the electric chair was in 2013 in Virginia.
Is it better to bend our principles to supply drugs and assure a more humane death, or to withhold them and ensure a violent death?
The dilemma is complicated by the knowledge that violent methods have less public support, so may – or may not – bring about the end of capital punishment in the USA sooner than non-violent methods.
I tentatively lean in the direction of the greater good, and suggest that drugs are withheld. But it is certainly a complicated issue.
The quotes in this piece have been edited for length.