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Veterinarians Unwillingly Drawn into Death Penalty Debate

You may be aware that the Supreme Court of the United States recently considered whether execution by lethal injection violates the constitution's clause prohibiting cruel...

Dr. Eric Barchas  |  Jun 1st 2008


You may be aware that the Supreme Court of the United States recently considered whether execution by lethal injection violates the constitution’s clause prohibiting cruel and unusual punishments (the court ruled that lethal injections are not unconstitutional). Veterinarians are notoriously apolitical and adverse to conflict, so it surprised me to find out that veterinary euthanasia guidelines had been cited in the arguments against lethal injection in humans.

A news story in the December 15, 2007 Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) brought the matter to the attention of veterinarians nationwide. The story sparked a frenzy of introspection among veterinarians, as well as a few letters to the editor of JAVMA. From the original article:

The high court agreed to hear the appeal of two Kentucky inmates suing the state over its three-drug lethal injection procedure, saying it causes unnecessary pain and suffering. Unwillingly caught up in the debate is the [American Veterinary Medical Association], whose Guidelines on Euthanasia are cited by lethal injection opponents arguing that even veterinarians won’t submit their animal patients to the same deadly cocktail used on condemned criminals.

The AVMA’s euthanasia guidelines were developed to help ensure that animals’ lives are ended in the kindest and most humane manner possible. And it is true that the drug cocktail used to execute criminals would, if used on a pet, violate the guidelines.

But I must confess that, like many veterinarians, I could live without the controversy. If I had wanted to get drawn into this debate, I would have become a lawyer.