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Humane Executions?


It hath often been said, that it is not death, but dying which is terrible. – Henry Fielding, Amelia

In the United States of America we’re slogging through a two-year long marathon to decide who will be the next president of the United States with news of each milestone being covered as though it were the determining factor in establishing the winner. I am happy to report that there is other news. It concerns the death penalty. And it is a subject with which two countries that treasure human rights above all else – the United States and China – are dealing.

In the United States the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on January 5 addressing the important question, simply stated, of whether being executed by a three-drug lethal injection is more likely to hurt than being put to death by an injection of a single drug because of the protocol accompanying the injection. If it is more painful, it may be unconstitutional and if it isn’t, it isn’t.

The people who are best able to answer that question are unable to give an opinion. Next best, however, are lawyers and Supreme Court Justices and it is the lawyers who presented the arguments as to why the three-drug injection is apt or not apt to hurt, and the Justices who will decide whom to believe.

Some medical evidence suggests that a single barbiturate is easier to administer and less likely to cause pain than the three-drug approach now commonly used. The one-drug method is used by the humane society in Kentucky and other states when euthanizing animals and is reportedly painless yet effective. According to Adam Liptak of the New York Times, however, one of the objections to switching to the single drug method employed on animals is that it is employed on animals. Death penalty proponents think that human beings are better than animals and should not be put to death the same way animals are put to death. It devalues the entire procedure.

As the Supreme Court case demonstrates, many people in the United States are concerned about the pain inflicted on those being executed despite Justice Antonin Scalia’s sensitive observation during oral argument that there’s no constitutional requirement that executions employ the “least painful method possible.”

While the Supreme Court contemplates the question, China has announced it, too, is trying, to use Chief Justice Roberts’ words from that same court session, to have a procedure that produces a “humane death.” Traditionally China has executed people with one shot to the back of the head. Mindful of the sensitivities of the survivors, those being shot have been asked to open their mouths when the shot is fired so that the bullet can pass through the head and out the mouth without disfiguring the victim.

Early in the New Year, Jiang Xingchang, vice-president of the Supreme People’s Court announced that lethal injection was more humane than the shot to the back of the head and that China would eventually replace the latter method of execution. It is already being employed in some places in China, using the the same three-drug formula being scrutinized by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Thanks to a relatively new invention, however, death by lethal injection has been made much more pleasant as well as efficient, in China.

According to USA Today, in 2004 authorities began acquiring “death vans” designed by Kang Zhongwen in which executions by lethal injection take place. Mr. Kang says that the van’s introduction shows that China “promotes human rights” by among other things enabling executions to take place in the communities where the condemned lived thus making it more convenient for family members who want to attend, a truly thoughtful touch. Mr. Kang was quoted in USA Today as saying of the van: “I’m most proud of the bed. It’s very humane, like an ambulance.” He then shows how the bed in the van slides out so the victim can lie down and when secure, be powered into the van.

All in all, it seems like a highly civilized approach to state-sponsored death. Whether China will be influenced by the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion of three drugs vs. one drug only time will tell.

Share  Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 5:00 AM | Permalink

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