Leadership

Anti-Death-Penalty Activists Target Pharmacist Association’s Ethics Code

As some states increasingly turn to compounding pharmacies to provide drugs needed for lethal injections, an online petition seeking to change the American Pharmacists Association's code of ethics is gaining steam. Activists see it as a way to bring more pressure to bear in their fight to end the death penalty for good.

According to some activists, it’s a sentence that could change everything about the death penalty.

It’s a sentence, activists say, that’s missing from the ethics code of the American Pharmacists Association (APhA), and the omission is raising serious questions for the organization and the role of the Hippocratic Oath in pharmacists’ work. More details below:

I look at the American Pharmacists Association as a partner in this process, and when it comes to almost all of the pharmacists I spoke to, I see them as future allies.

What raised the issue? In January, Ohio death row inmate Dennis McGuire was executed for the 1989 rape and murder of 22-year-old newlywed Joy Stewart. While McGuire had accepted his fate—going so far as to acknowledge he committed the crime in a letter to Ohio Gov. John Kasich—it was the way he died that drew activists’ attention. McGuire was given a new kind of lethal-injection cocktail, one that had never been tried before in the United States, and there were complications. It took 24 minutes for McGuire to die after he received the drugs, which blocked his airflow and reportedly led to a dramatic scene in the execution chamber.

Activists speak up: McGuire’s protracted death outraged anti-death-penalty advocacy groups. It also brought attention to the pharmacy industry, particularly makers of compounded drugs, which are not federally regulated. (This is changing, however; new legislation signed by President Obama last week allows compounding pharmacies that produce drugs in bulk to register voluntarily for FDA oversight.) A small number of compounding pharmacies have agreed to produce the kind of two-drug cocktail used in McGuire’s lethal injection because supplies of the single drug used traditionally are becoming scarce, as many drug manufacturers are restricting use of their products in capital punishment. A civil rights lawsuit filed in Missouri last year seeks to force the state to disclose the names of the pharmacies providing the drugs it uses in lethal injections.

An ethics code omission? According to some protesters, led by progressive activist Kelsey Kauffman, part of the difficulty may be with APhA’s ethics code, which—unlike those of other major medical groups, such as the American Medical Association and the American Nurses Association [PDF]—does not specifically prohibit its members from assisting in executions. While such a code provision would not be legally binding, it could make pharmacists who currently compound lethal injection drugs less willing to do so—if, for example, it would result in their losing their professional certification. That’s why the nonprofit petition site SumOfUs has launched a campaign to get the association to add a prohibition to its code. The petition, which argues that “the association could help put a stop to the manufacturing and supplying of drugs used for lethal injections and help end the use of the death penalty in the U.S. once and for all,” has been signed by more than 36,000 people and has gained support from the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, and other civil  rights groups.

The association’s take: In its policy manual, APhA opposes laws that either “mandate or prohibit the participation of pharmacists” in executions, but also objects to the use of the term “drug” for chemicals used in lethal injection. APhA spokeswoman Michelle Spinnler told the Associated Press that the association may consider the issue at its next annual meeting, reflecting the group’s long policy development process. For activists like Kauffman, APhA’s response is heartening. In comments to Think Progress after attending the group’s annual meeting in March, she said that association members seem receptive to the campaign. “I look at the American Pharmacists Association as a partner in this process, and when it comes to almost all of the pharmacists I spoke to, I see them as future allies,” she said.

Although the move could prove a breakthrough for the anti-death-penalty movement, it wouldn’t be the first time an association has switched gears on the issue. In 2010, the American Board of Anesthesiology made a similar change to its ethics policy.

(iStock/Thinkstock)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. MORE

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