Doctors' Group Declines to Weigh in on Death Penalty

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June 13, 2000 (Chicago) -- Saying it preferred to deal in medicine, not politics, the American Medical Association (AMA) on Tuesday rejected a measure from some of its physician delegates that it support a national moratorium on the death penalty until DNA testing and other medical techniques are readily available to prevent wrongful executions.

The AMA's House of Delegates is in the midst of its annual meeting, at which it considers new policies that it believes represent the current voice of medicine.

Edwin Harvie, MD, a Virginia alternate delegate, tells WebMD, "Everyone wants to be sure that [alleged] criminals should have the full benefits of forensic medicine. But we didn't feel that getting beyond that, as far as supporting a moratorium and getting on the bandwagon ... was really within the province of the AMA. We should leave the politics to the politicians."

But Jonathan Weisbuch, MD, tells WebMD, "If one innocent person is executed, especially because of a failure of the medical system, that is a public health problem. Our goal is to reduce the risk of inappropriate death." Weisbuch is an AMA delegate for the American Association of Public Health Physicians.

Citing doctors' principle of "do no harm," Weisbuch had sought that the AMA support an execution moratorium for all states until "the availability and use of all appropriate medical forensic techniques in the criminal justice system can be assured."

Doubts have risen over the accuracy of the death penalty system. This February, for example, Illinois suspended its use of the death penalty, concerned about errors that lead to wrongful executions.

The Chicago Tribune recently reported that numerous Texas executions have occurred with the support of questionable testimony. Republican presidential candidate Gov. George W. Bush recently halted a death row inmate's execution to allow for DNA testing to possibly establish his innocence.

But many AMA delegates said that Weisbuch's measure would have gone too far, bringing with it the effect of putting the association on record against the death penalty. "It would have the effect of having a permanent moratorium," said Steven Thorson, MD, a Colorado alternate delegate.


"As physicians, we are troubled that science isn't available to protect any innocent people that might be executed," Virginia alternate delegate Randolph Gould, MD, tells WebMD. But he says that weighing the question of the death penalty is not the AMA's task. "It is something that the legal system itself and our elected officials need to address. It is more of a societal issue than medical issue."

Instead of the moratorium language, AMA's House passed a measure Tuesday that it supports "the availability and use of all appropriate medical forensic techniques in the criminal justice system."

Association president Thomas Reardon, MD, told reporters, "Our issue is the accuracy and validity of laboratory testing, which could be used to establish guilt or innocence." He says that when there is the opportunity to do DNA or other testing in criminal proceedings, "we want to make sure that it is used."

Weisbuch says he was pleased that the association took even a small step on the issue. He is optimistic that the stance may make a difference. "If an individual is denied [DNA testing] services, his attorney may raise this issue on appeal, indicating that the AMA has urged that appropriate tests be provided," he tells WebMD.


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