It seems that capital punishment in the USA has had its longest time. According to The Guardian this is not due to any significant change of mind, but because the, mainly European, suppliers of the drugs used in lethal injection refuses to supply these drugs to prisons. Pharmaceutical corporations don’t want to be associated with executions, of course for reasons of public relations.
Though lethal injection has championed as being the most humane way executing people, it’s not without controversy. Opponents of lethal injection claim that lethal in injection only masked the suffering of the condemned by paralysing him or her, but does not really render him or her unconscious. Hence lethal injection does cause agonizing pain to executed.
Any way, the number of executions in the US is steadily in decline. Both opponents of the death penalty should not cheer to early. It’s possible that states might switch other possible methods of execution. Though it take a long time to change the death penalty statues, a process that inevitable will ignite the discussion about capital punishment itself.
Opponents of the death penalty often argue that life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is sufficient to protect society from dangerous criminals. With the additional benefit of being able to release those who are wrongly convicted. However it’s far from certain that such a life sentence is actually a more humane punishment than death. Long term prison sentences have severe effects on human psychology, and some researchers even consider imprisonment as a kind of torture.
But there might be a third alternative besides capital punishment and life without the possibility of parole: voluntary execution by nitrogen asphyxiation. Voluntary execution means that a convicted criminal has to decide whether (s)he will spend the remainder of his/her life in prison or that (s)he will be executed. Nitrogen asphyxiation is a cheap, reliable and painless method of execution, originally investigated in animal slaughter.
The participation of medical professionals in both euthanasia and capital punishment is controversial. Lethal injection is a common procedure in both practices, but it requires trained skills to perform it properly. Ideally, either physicians or anaesthetists should carry out the injections. However, traditional medical ethics (the Hippocratic Oath) prevents medical practitioners from administering people lethal substances.
British humanist philosopher A. C. Grayling argued for the introduction of thanatologists: medical professionals specialized in human euthanasia. Though Grayling does not point out a specific method of euthanasia, it’s reasonable to assume that he is thinking about either some kind of lethal injections or some pill (“Pil van Drion” in Dutch). However, they are other possible methods for euthanasia.
Canadian-American philosopher James Park argues for the abolition of the death penalty around world, and to replace it with imprisonment for life. However, Park agrees with Peter Moskos that:
the sadism inherent in long-term imprisonment, especially solitary confinement, should give pause to all who have the slightest bit of human empathy. Is anything worse than being entombed alive? (Moskos p. 50, 2011).
Imprisonment, life sentences in particular, have been described by many as a kind of torture. For those criminals sentences to temporary prison sentences, Moskos has proposed to offer the condemned a choice between either a several years in prison or to be flogged instead (with subsequent release). But Moskos has to accept that some criminals (including murderers, serial rapists, child molesters and terrorists) are so dangerous that they have to be kept away from society, for ever.
However, if we accept that imprisonment is a kind of torture, than life-imprisonment becomes a serious moral problem. This argument is used in favour of the death penalty, since some supporters of the death penalty see it as a more humane alternative for life-imprisonment. (Conversely, some opponents of the death penalty are using this to describe the death penalty as too soft.)
In order to solve this moral dilemma, James Park has proposed to offer those condemned to life without parole the option of voluntary execution. In his proposal, the prisoner will select the date of his or her execution (at least a year into the future). During the time up to the execution the prisoner can reverse his or her decision. Further the prisoner who desires to be executed, has to make twelve requests for it to be sent to trusted person outside the prison system. Park also proposes several safe-guards to ensure that the decision to be executed is made voluntarily by the prisoners (i.e. without pressure from the authorities).
Additionally Park argues for giving prisoners the option to donate their organs after their (voluntary) execution, which could save the lives of up to seven persons. This requirement severely restricts the number of execution methods which can be used. Although Park mentions brain death as an execution method, he does not say how to induce brain death in people. But there is an execution method which is both humane and leaves the organs suitable for donation.
Inert gas asphyxiation is a form of asphyxiation which results from respiration of inert gas in the absence of oxygen rather than atmospheric air (a mixture of oxygen and the inert nitrogen). The painful experience of suffocation is not caused by lack of oxygen, but because carbon dioxide builds up in the bloodstream, instead of being exhaled as under normal circumstances. With inert gas asphyxiation, carbon dioxide is exhaled normally, and no such pain experience occurs.
Therefore inert gas asphyxiation is a relatively humane way to cause death. This method works also quickly, unconsciousness within fifteen seconds and death within a minute. As method for euthanasia, it has the additional benefit of causing a state of euphoria in the person dying in such manner. What way of dying is better than dying in euphoria?
However, this aspect is reason for some supporters to oppose this method for executions. But since this method only requires a bottle of nitrogen, a tube and a mask, inert gas asphyxiation does not depend on the use of medical skills. This fact makes it suitable for use by Grayling’s thanatologists. With a simple and fast method for euthanasia, thanatologists can focus on counselling their patients and their loved-ones.
Moskos, Peter 2011. In defense of flogging. Basic Books, New York.