March 12, 2018

Once again the legislature and New Hampshire is considering repeal of the death penalty. The repeal bill, SB 593, would replace capital punishment with imprisonment without the possibility of parole. SB 593 has 13 sponsors in the Senate, which is already a majority, so it is likely to pass in the Senate. It is also likely to garner sufficient support to pass in the House. Unfortunately, Governor Sununu has already indicated he will veto repeal of the death penalty if it comes to his desk. We can only hope he listens to the many arguments from both sides of the aisle to reconsider his opposition to repeal. The arguments for repeal are from so many different perspectives: religious, moral, pragmatic, legal, financial, medical and psychiatric/psychological. I will offer the arguments here from a medical and psychiatric perspective.   

Organized medicine (the American Medical Association) has opposed physicians participating in the process of administering the death penalty since July 1980. The reason for this prohibition of physicians participating in the process of killing a prisoner is that it is a violation of Section 1 of the AMA’s Principles of Medical Ethics which states that “a physician shall be dedicated to providing competent medical care, with compassion and respect for human rights.” It is unfortunate that other less qualified medical personnel have been employed in the procedures of administering lethal injections, often inadequately and always inhumanely, in violation of these important ethical principles.

Governor Sununu has offered two reasons for his opposition to repeal of the death penalty. He expressed his interest in supporting crime victims and supporting the death penalty for the most heinous crimes. I think we can all agree that there is no more heinous crime than murder, yet we had more than 11,000 murders in the United States last year. Would we as a society want to murder 11,000 more if we found their murderers and were able to prosecute them successfully? What about the mistakes, as there have been well over 150 exonerations already? Or are some murders more heinous than others? With all due respect, and I mean this sincerely, is a school teacher’s death by murder, or a brother’s or sister’s death by murder, or a child’s death by murder, less heinous than a policeman’s death by murder? 

As a psychiatrist I have been concerned about violence throughout my career. There is certainly too much violence in our world and in our country. As a society we need to focus on reducing violence, not condoning it. Violence, of course, comes in many forms, from bullying in our schools to sexual, physical and emotional abuse in our homes and workplaces, and of course murder in our homes and streets. We certainly don’t punish bullies by bullying them, nor should we punish abusers by abusing them, nor should we punish murderers by murdering them. Elective murder by the state is not the best we can do as a civilized society. We can do better, and we should. It is not a good example to murder to show that murder is wrong.

I will continue this discussion about the many reasons why repeal of the death penalty is crucial for our state and our country in my next blog post. I encourage all physicians and health professionals to think deeply about this often neglected moral and human rights issue. Furthermore, if you are moved to do so, please contact your area representatives, senators and Governor Sununu to express your thoughts regarding SB 593. Phone numbers and email addresses can be found at http://www.nh.gov/.

Leonard Korn, MD

NHMS President