As state officials scramble to get the drugs they need to execute condemned prisoners, they’ve run into repeated roadblocks thanks to members of the medical community, who say that helping with executions violates their code of ethics. Without being able to purchase drugs from most hospitals or pharmacies, states have been resorting to creative measures. In Louisiana, for instance, employees in the Department of Corrections recently circumvented the issue by simply misleading medical professionals about why exactly they need those drugs.
According to the public interest outlet The Lens, Lake Charles Memorial Hospital unwittingly supplied Louisiana officials with hydromorphone, a pain relieving drug, for the upcoming execution of a death row inmate. The hospital didn’t realize that’s what the state intended to use their hydromorphone for.
“We assumed the drug was for one of their patients, so we sent it. We did not realize what the focus was,” Ulysses Gene Thibodeaux, a board member for the private hospital, told The Lens. “Had we known of the real use, we never would have done it.”
Documents obtained by The Lens confirm that Louisiana officials bought several vials of hydromorphone from Lake Charles Memorial Hospital on January 28, just one week before they were scheduled to execute inmate Christopher Sepulvado. Around the same time, the Department of Corrections announced they were switching to a different combination of lethal drugs — hydromorphone and midazolam — to execute inmates.
“At no time did Memorial believe or was led to believe that the drug would be used for an execution,” Matt Felder, a spokesman for the hospital, told local outlet KPLC. Felder said that the hospital was told the Department of Corrections needed the drug “for a medical patient.”
But health care professionals don’t consider state-sanctioned executions to be a legitimate medical issue. Because the Hippocratic Oath states that doctors should “do no harm” to their patients, and “give no deadly medicine to anyone,” the people who work in this field consider assisting with executions to be in direct violation to their code of ethics. All of the major medical associations — including the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, the American Board of Anesthesiology, and the American Nurses Association — prohibit their members from using their skills to help execute inmates.
Medical professionals also object to the fact that drugs typically used to relieve pain are now being repurposed to kill. “Yes, they are using ‘our drugs’, but with a different purpose and intent,” an anesthesiologist pointed out to ThinkProgress last month.
Lake Charles Memorial Hospital hasn’t typically questioned state officials who say they need drugs for their inmates. But Thibodeaux said the hospital CEO has reassured the board members that this type of involvement in potential executions won’t happen again, so the approval process may be about to get stricter.
This could end up being a bigger issue for Louisiana inmates who do need drugs from hospitals for their medical treatment; if the Department of Corrections repeatedly misleads drug suppliers about how their products are being used, hospitals could become wary to give their drugs to prisons altogether. That’s essentially what has happened on a larger scale between the U.S. and Europe, as European officials have refused to export drugs that may end up being used in American executions — and have acknowledged that may lead to a shortage of those drugs among patients who actually need them for medical purposes.
Christopher Sepulvado’s execution has since been delayed to an unspecified date. Louisiana agreed to postpone it after an execution using the same combination of drugs went terribly wrong in Oklahoma, leaving inmate Clayton Lockett writhing in apparent pain for more than half an hour before he eventually died of a massive heart attack. An autopsy confirmed that Lockett’s execution was botched by a relatively inexperienced individual who incorrectly inserted an IV into his vein, another area where the medical community’s refusal to participate in executions has left states resorting to less than ideal options.
In light of these persistent issues with the way we put inmates to death in this country, some medical professionals now advocate for alternate forms of execution that don’t require any assistance from trained doctors — like firing squads or guillotines. Elected officials who favor the death penalty have gone even further than that; earlier this year, one Oklahoma lawmaker said that he doesn’t care if death row inmates are fed to lions.