Lundbeck and pentobarbital: pharma takes a stand against executions

The decision by the Danish firm to ban use of pentobarbital as a US execution drug may deal a fatal blow to capital punishment.

The Guardian
David Nicholl, Friday 1 July 2011

Article history
Pentobarbital: Danish manufacturer Lundbeck has now prohibited its use in the US as an execution drug. Photograph: Alessandro Della Bella/AP

The announcement by Danish pharmaceutical firm Lundbeck on Friday that it is restricting the distribution of pentobarbital represents a landmark decision. This is the first time that a major global pharmaceutical company has taken such direct action to tighten up its supply chain to ensure that its drugs are used to benefit the health of patients, not assist in state-sponsored execution. It follows months of pressure from human rights advocates. At the end of last year, US death row states found it difficult to get access to the previous drug, thiopental, for executions following an export ban from the UK.

Lethal injection is perceived as a more medical, and hence humane, method than hanging, stoning, shooting or electrocution. Yet the medicalisation of executions is an abomination of medical ethics, banned by all medical professional bodies, including the American Medical Association. Doctors’ prime purpose is to help patients: “first do no harm” should be a doctor’s credo, not assist in state-sponsored killing. Previously, the attention of human rights campaigners has been directed at the physicians and healthcare staff who have assisted in executions. Lundbeck’s remarkable decision has, in effect, set an industry standard that no drug company should allow their products to be used for executions, even if without their authority.

To date, 17 people have been executed using the novel, and hence untested, pentobarbital regime. The most recent to die, Roy Blakenship, was executed last week. Witnesses reported that he “appeared to grimace” and that he “jerked his head several times throughout the procedure and muttered after the pentobarbital was injected into his veins before he died”. One medical expert, Dr David Waisel, has testified that “I can say with certainty that Mr [Roy] Blankenship was inadequately anesthetised and was conscious for approximately the first three minutes of the execution and that he suffered greatly.”

Few doctors involved in executions have been prepared to go public. One who has, Dr Carlo Musso, was directly involved in Blakenship’s execution. Dr Musso stated his opposition to the death penalty in a 2006 interview. Then, Dr Musso perceived his role as a palliative care physician on death row. “It just seems wrong for us to walk away, to abdicate our responsibility to the patients,” he said at the time.

Read the rest here.