Recently, a few states in the United States (US) announced that they may start using propofol for lethal executions. Propofol is a common anaesthetic widely used in the US health services. The central issue is whether propofol should be used for lethal injections. This also brings into question the legality of capital punishment in the modern day. Capital punishment is legal in some states in the US, but it is banned in the European Union (EU). This is controversial since propofol is predominantly manufactured in the EU and then distributed to the US. It presents a conflict between the domestic laws and principles.
This is not the first time that propofol has made the headlines in the news. It was believed that an overdose of the anaesthetic was the cause of death in the Michael Jackson case. The doctor that had administered the anaesthetic was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. Conrad Murray was originally sentenced to four years imprisonment in 2011 but, he was released two years into his sentence this year.
The use of propofol in lethal injections has been comprehensively opposed. The angst surrounding the use of propofol in lethal injections is mainly due to uncertainty. This is because since this will be the first time that propofol will be used in executions, no one knows the effect the drug will have. Furthermore, there is no clarity in the dosage that should be used in order for the drug to be effective. Also, it is not known whether the drug will actually relive any pain. Based on the issues surrounding the use of propofol, it seems like it’s a situation of pot luck.
Furthermore, the drug is imported from the EU which does not condone capital punishment. The EU are working towards a movement of universally abolishing the death penalty. Capital punishment is also banned within the EU. The European Commission Democracy and Human Rights has noted that: ‘The abolition of the death penalty is essential for the enhancement of human dignity’. From this statement, it is clear that the EU will be strict about the restrictions that will be applied in the use of propofol. It is unlikely that there will be any leeway in the way that propofol will be distributed in the US.
In addition the EU expressly: ‘prohibits exports and imports of equipment which has no practical use other than for the purpose of capital punishment’ in Council Regulation 1236/2005. Propofol is also used for medical reasons therefore this regulation is not fully applicable. This is because propofol will not be used purely for capital punishment. As a result, this has meant that tighter regulations have been introduced for trading propofol between the US and EU.
There has not been a complete ban on the export of propofol to the US yet. However, the EU has threatened to place sanctions on the export of propofol. This would have an adverse effect because it would mean that hospitals and clinics would also lose access to the use of propofol. It is widely used for medical reasons across the US and is relied upon for daily use.
Since the announcement to possibly use propofol for lethal injections, there are now limitations on the method in which propofol is distributed. Manufacturers of propofol now have to apply for an export license for every shipment and this process can take up to 3–6 months. Even though propofol can still be imported and exported, this has consequently caused some delays in the shipment of propofol. This could have a negative effect in the future for the health system. Propofol is used everyday for medical use and this delay is risky since it may not provide enough propofol required to meet the demands of patients.
Moreover, it can be said that the death penalty violates fundamental human rights to life. For example Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that torture, inhuman, degrading treatment or punishment are violations of human rights. Capital punishment can be considered to be a form of torture. The process of capital punishment is premeditated and the prisoner knows that they will be killed in matter of time. This waiting period until their death can be said to be a form of torture and can also amount to inhuman treatment. In opposition, some will say that since the person has committed a serious crime, they do not deserve access to these human rights.
Furthermore, the brutality of capital punishment makes the action seem barbaric, no matter which method is used. It is morally questionable for human beings to kill one another. There are many laws, principles and religious scriptures which can be seen throughout history which state or suggest that all human beings are equal. Capital punishment contradicts these ancient standards of society. On this basis it can be argued that in order to progress towards a more humane and civilised society, capital punishment needs to be abolished. The use of propofol is only aiding capital punishment and so should not be used.
The argument for using propofol in capital punishment is very weak as it stands. There are many principles of law and morality surrounding the issue.