Looks Like Medicine"
Daniel Sturm, The Youngstown Walrus
Oct. 11, 2006
Jonathan Groner, an associate professor of surgery at the Ohio State
University College of Medicine and Public Health, describes parallels
between lethal injection in America and the Nazi Germany "euthanasia"
program. As in Nazi Germany, Groner says that in America doctors are
today being asked to hold the lethal syringe.
Sturm: You say that you see similarities between Nazi doctors and
U.S. execution teams?
Jonathan Groner: At Northwestern University I read many Holocaust
books, being Jewish and having gone to Hebrew High School. It was interesting
to see how intimately doctors were involved in the Nazi euthanasia program,
and eventually in the genocide. When I was a surgery resident, I heard
a lecture about Robert Jay Lifton, who studied the corruption of Nazi
Germany physicians. Lifton described how the government recruited physicians
to kill physically and mentally disabled patients, including the "criminally
insane." What struck me was the idea of using healing imagery to
justify killing. That stayed with me.
Sturm: When did you first become critical of the death penalty?
Jonathan Groner: In 1997 Arkansas executed three people in one
night. Reading about how they came into the room, put the IVs in, laid
the prisoners down on the table, and executed them one by one - this
sounded a lot like the concentration camps. The euthanasia program's
chief administrator was often quoted saying, "The syringe belongs
in the hand of a physician." The analogy really stuck with me.
Compare the kind of language they use to describe these executions and
you will find similarities. It's a similar kind of healing imagery:
"Family hope killer's death ends their years of pain, lets their
healing begin." The Time magazine article about the first lethal
injection in 1982 read, "It looks like a hospital room." After
the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 President Clinton said, "It's
time to let the healing begin." And his next sentence was, "We've
got to find the people who did this to kill them!"** It's always
this pattern of killing/healing/killing/healing.
Sturm: You argue that after the introduction of lethal injection
the number of executions increased. How so?
Jonathan Groner: My thesis is that if we never went with lethal
injection, we'd never have begun executing more than five or seven prisoners
per year. I think lethal injection puts that veneer of medical respectability
on murder. I think they did a good job in "Dead Man Walking"
to demonstrate this kind of medicalization: They swab the prisoner's
arm with alcohol and all that. It looks like medicine, and again, it's
just like the Nazi regime's medicalized killing.
Sturm: In 1977, when Dr. Stanley Deutsch, an Oklahoma anesthesiologist,
helped to draft the first state lethal injection law, it was considered
progress. A more humane method of killing when compared with the electric
Jonathan Groner: Is there such a thing as humane killing? Could
there be less physical torture? I don't think so either. I have patients
who pass out from taking out suture, and others I can cause significant
pain to and they seem fine. You just can't quantify physical or psychic
pain. Would it be more humane to use anesthesia drugs? Perhaps. But
in order for his method to succeed, and not torture people, it requires
medically trained individuals. A prison guard administering pancuronium
is almost like me flying a 747. I can actually fly an airplane. But
I couldn't fly a 747.
Sturm: Why doesn't Ohio employ physicians to ensure that executions
are done properly?
Jonathan Groner: The state fears litigation. The American Medical
Association (AMA) distinguishes between pronouncing death and certifying
death. To pronounce death you are trying to ascertain that the moment
of death has arrived. In order to do that you have to examine a person's
presence or absence of vital signs. The AMA considers monitoring the
vital signs in an execution to be unethical. If you monitor vital signs
and there is still a presence you would have to give more drugs, so
you would instantly become an actor of execution.
** The exact quote of Bill Clinton's April 23 speech reads, "We
pledge to do all we can to help you heal the injured, to rebuild this
city, and to bring to justice those who did this evil."
Daniel Sturm is German journalist who covers under-reported social and
political topics in Europe and in the United States. Some of his work
can be seen on the Internet, at http://www.sturmstories.com