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Journal of Long-Term Effects of Medical Implants

ISSN Print: 1050-6934
ISSN Online: 1940-4379

Journal of Long-Term Effects of Medical Implants

DOI: 10.1615/JLongTermEffMedImplants.v18.i1.210
23 pages

Abstract of "Biomedical Engineers and Participation in Judicial Executions: Capital Punishment as a Technical Problem"


In past centuries, the technologies used in judicial executions were crude and rudimentary, consisting of brutal methods such as stoning, drowning, burning at the stake, hanging, and mutilation. Dr. Guillotin, a French physician, was among the first individuals to advocate the use of technology to achieve more “ humane” executions. In the United States, a nation even more enthusiastic than the French about scientific innovation, technological developments such as the electric chair, the gas chamber, and lethal injection served as uniquely American answers to Dr. Guillotin’s plea for “ humane” executions. While physicians in the United States are generally forbidden from any involvement in the judicial execution process on ethical grounds, a survey of the various engineering codes of ethics suggests that this is not the case for engineering professionals. This creates an interesting but potentially controversial opportunity for the engineering community (especially biomedical engineers) to continue to improve the humaneness and reliability of the judicial execution process. For instance, one might consider a design employing a sealed transparent hood encapsulating the head to which is delivered pure nitrous oxide. Such an arrangement should lead to painless unconsciousness in a few minutes, but since no oxygen is being administered it will also quickly lead to anoxia and cardiac arrest. At issue, however, is whether or not the engineering community should embrace this opportunity. Engineers concerned that capital punishment be carried out competently and humanely are faced with an ethical dilemma: their desire to reduce pain and suffering in the execution process will not only be in direct conflict with the established ethical position of the medical establishment, which takes a clear and unambiguous position against participating in any way in capital punishment, but is likely to be held in low professional regard by many in the engineering professions as well.