Physicians and Execution

The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) has an editorial with the above title. It takes the position that physicians should not participate in executions. This is hardly a surprising view; one which, I suspect, would be that of virtually all doctors in the US. It certainly is mine. So why write a piece in favor of a view everybody already has; ie physicians shouldn’t knowingly kill people? There is an interesting slip in the piece that suggests that the editors of the NEJM are concerned with more than physician participation in executions. Here’s the passage:

Since the Morales case, there is evidence of a growing sentiment in the country against executions: only 42 executions took place in 2007 (as compared with 98 in 1999), New Jersey decided in December 2007 to abolish capital punishment, and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Baze v. Rees, marking the first time the Court has examined the constitutionality of lethal injection as a means of execution. But the people’s unease over the death penalty is not new. In his 1972 concurring opinion in Furman v. Georgia, in which the Supreme Court ruled capital punishment to be cruel and unusual because of arbitrary and capricious application, Justice William Brennan wrote, “The progressive decline in, and the current rarity of, the infliction of death demonstrate that our society seriously questions the appropriateness of this punishment today.”

I was taken aback by the assertion that the public was increasingly uneasy about the death penalty. My recollection was that a majority of the US public supported the death penalty. So I went to the Gallup organization’s web site and examined their polling data on the subject. Opposition to the death penalty peaked in 1966 at 47% and dropped thereafter. Currently it’s 27%.

gallup-poll-death-penalty.jpg

The graph above shows Gallup’s polling data for the past 26 years. Thus there seems to be no evidence to support either of the two contentions highlighted above in bold. In 1972 (data available at Gallup web site) opposition to the death penalty was 41% compared to 27% in 2007.

I suspect the NEJM has two issues on its agenda. The first, physician participation in executions serving as a straw man to insinuate the editors’ dislike (the second issue) of capital punishment no matter how dispensed. But I can’t be sure. What is certain is that editorial page seems to have a looser standard regarding data and the facts than the rest of the NEJM. Perhaps the journal’s editorials could be better served by peer review.

The unease about the death penalty seems to reside among the country’s cultural elite, but not among its population. This is not a unique disconnect.

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3 Responses to Physicians and Execution

  1. Carol Tures says:

    The editors are not incorrect. The hard data is the steady decrease in the number of death sentences which are handed out. The soft data are the answers to a black-and-white poll question that fails to ask the right questions. How about, “Would you agree or disagree that a sentence of life in prison without parole plus an attempt at restitution would be an acceptable substitute for a death sentence?” When it comes down to it in the courtroom, the theoretical crime and punishment that the pollsters are talking about evaporates. Real people are taking real responsibility for killing another human being whom they can look in the eye, and they are saying, “No.”

    Former Michigan Governor John M. Engler said that people’s support for the death penalty is broad but not deep. He said that if someone were to conduct a poll as to whether or not they should pay taxes, 100% would be against it.

  2. Neil Kurtzman says:

    My point was straightforward is there decreasing public support for the death penalty as claimed by the editors of the NEJM or not? The answer is simple – no. The rest is argument about the virtues or evils of the death penalty, an argument I do not think appropriate for this site. How does Gov Engeler know how deep support for the death penalty is? And what does it have to do with my point? The death penalty may well be discarded but it won’t be because of a groundswell of popular opposition. It will be because the nation’s cultural elite are against it – my other point.

  3. “Supreme Court ruled capital punishment to be cruel and unusual because of arbitrary and capricious application, Justice William Brennan wrote, “The progressive decline in, and the current rarity of, the infliction of death demonstrate that our society seriously questions the appropriateness of this punishment today.”

    There’s little point in prosecutors going for the death penalty here (California) as it may take over 20 years to get someone executed (really capricious, HA!!). Fiscally, its just far cheaper not to go for the death penalty and avoid millions in court costs. That blows the “hard data” argument. What the courts impose automatically refects public sentiment!!! In what world??

    Operafilly

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