Stay of Execution
Fr. Frank Pavone
National Director, Priests for Life
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Even from death row, you can change history and
Two death-sentenced Kentucky prisoners have a
grievance which the Supreme Court recently agreed to hear. In the case of
Baze v. Rees, the inmates argue that the method of execution most commonly
used – that is, lethal injection – violates the Eighth Amendment s prohibition
of cruel and unusual punishment. In fact, at least half of the death row inmates
facing an imminent execution in the last two years have filed suit challenging
the chemicals used in lethal injections.
The fact that the high court has agreed to hear
this case has caused many states to halt executions until the decision is
rendered sometime in 2008.
At issue is not the constitutionality of the
death penalty itself, but rather a specific question raised by the type of
chemicals used and the method of application.
In the 1980s, most of the states that have capital
punishment switched over from electrocution to lethal injection, on the theory
that injecting a cocktail of poisons would be more painless and humane. Since
capital punishment was reinstated three decades ago, nearly 900 of the 1,056
U.S. executions carried out through 2006 were by lethal injection.
The three-drug lethal injection process works
like this: First, a sedative is administered through an IV, rendering the inmate
unconscious, then a paralyzing agent stops the breathing muscles and finally a
shot of potassium chloride stops the heart. But objections have been raised that
the method, even when applied properly, leaves open the possibility that the
inmate would still be conscious of severe pain but be unable to express it
because of the paralyzing effect of the drug. Moreover, because correctional
officers, not medical practitioners, administer the fatal dose in most states,
the risk of mistakes increases.
So what level of risk of unnecessary pain
constitutes crossing the line into “cruel and unusual punishment?” That is the
Constitutional issue the Court must decide.
Meanwhile, a similar issue has surfaced in recent
years, regarding unnecessary pain inflicted on another group of people scheduled
for death. In the last Congress, a bill was introduced that would provide an
option for unborn children scheduled to be aborted at 20 weeks or more after
fertilization to receive pain reducing medication prior to being dismembered.
Each year in the United States alone, over 18,000 abortions take place at 21 or
more weeks of pregnancy. These children also would be unable to express the pain
In 1994, an article in the prestigious British
medical journal, the Lancet, revealed hormonal stress reactions in the fetus.
The article concluded with the recommendation that painkillers be used when
surgery is done on the fetus. The authors wrote, "This applies not just to
diagnostic and therapeutic procedures on the fetus, but possibly also to
termination of pregnancy, especially by surgical techniques involving
dismemberment." In 1991, scientific advisors to the Federal Medical Council
in Germany had made a similar recommendation.
How about a stay of execution for the unborn, for
the same humanitarian reasons?