Monday, February 25, 2008

the struggle goes both ways

An unfortunate side effect of hanging or poisoning a man is that his organs go sour before they can be transplanted. Death-row inmates have repeatedly asked to donate their organs, but their requests are always denied. The simple reason is that execution generally ruins organs before they can be harvested. By the time you cut someone down from the gallows or pronounce the injection lethal, the heart and lungs will have thumped and puffed for the last time. Soon after, the kidneys start rotting, and before long nothing is useful but the corneas. Even with beheading— still practiced in Saudi Arabia—the heart and lungs probably wouldn’t make it, says Douglas Hanto, chief transplant surgeon at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. But by using what the bioethicist Arthur Caplan calls “the Mayan Protocol”—a term derived from the ancient Mayan practice of vivisecting their human sacrifices—the removal of organs would itself be the method of execution. If this sounds inhumane, compare it to current practices: botched hangings, painfully long gassings, and messy electrocutions. Removal of the heart, lungs, and kidneys (under anesthesia, of course) would kill every time, without an instant of pain. So far, the organs of all criminals executed in the United States have stayed with their original owners. Consider the loss. Someone died waiting for that killer’s heart. Two died waiting for his kidneys, and two more suffocated for lack of his lungs. The liver, split two ways, could have saved two babies. Take the hair, bone, skin, ligaments, and fluids for grafts and transfusions, and all that’s left of the donor’s body could be shuffled off into a very petite coffin indeed. The inmate could allow nearly a dozen people to live, in exchange for a body he wouldn’t be around to enjoy anyway. The math says we should encourage death-row organ donation.

But medical ethics, which bars doctors from murdering patients, says we cannot. Physicians have come out strongly against participating in capital punishment, even to administer anesthesia or find a vein for lethal injection. The result: inaccurate injections, and a sometime torturous demise for the condemned. And the fraternity of surgeons is quite attached to its cardinal directive in vital-organ-transplant ethics, the aptly named “dead-donor rule.” They will not take the lungs of someone still using them.

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2 comments:

angela said...

best quote of the article: Plus, the medicalization of execution would creep everyone out.

katie t. said...

haha, yeah that's pretty much the reason for all the hubbub about it