Pfizer bans drugs for lethal injection: The end of capital punishment?

Pfizer has announced tighter regulation of seven medicines that can be used in lethal injections, citing its opposition to the use of its products in capital punishment.

Richard Drew/AP/File
The Pfizer logo appears on a screen above its trading post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, April 6, 2016. Pfizer said May 13 that it was blocking use of its drugs in lethal injections, which means all federally approved drugmakers whose medications could be used for executions have now put them off limits.

Pfizer, a major pharmaceutical company, has introduced stricter controls on its drugs, aimed at curbing their use in lethal injections.

The move, according to Reprieve, a human rights non-profit, means that all 25 FDA-approved manufacturers of drugs potentially used for executions have imposed bans on their sale for that purpose.

While the move has met with widespread applause from death penalty opponents, its practical import may be limited, even as it marks another milestone along what many observers regard as the inexorable decline of state-sanctioned execution.

“What Pfizer has done is made clear that it, along with the rest of pharmaceutical companies, is committed to ensuring that its medicines are not misused for killing prisoners,” says Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, in a telephone interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

“The major pharmaceutical companies have ... expressed their views that medicine designed to save lives and make lives better should not be used by the state to take lives,” he says.

In a statement explaining its decision, Pfizer echoes these sentiments, describing its products as designed to “enhance and save the lives of the patients we serve” and objecting to their use “as lethal injections for capital punishment.”

Specifically, the company is restricting the sale of seven drugs used by states in their administration of lethal injections, demanding that distributors and purchasers undertake a commitment not to resell to correctional institutions for use in executions.

Any government purchasers will have to declare that the intended use is only for “medically prescribed patient care,” not to be used in any kind of punishment.

“Pfizer will consistently monitor the distribution of these seven products, act upon findings that reveal noncompliance, and modify policies when necessary to remain consistent with our stated position against the improper use of our products in lethal injections,” reads the company’s statement.

The move comes at a time when the death penalty seems to be spiraling ever downward to its own demise.

The number of death sentences issued has declined every year but four since 1998.

In 2015, judges and juries sentenced 49 criminals to death nationwide, compared with 295 in 1998.

Lethal injection has been used in the vast majority of executions since 1976. 

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 1,261 executions over the past 40 years used lethal injection – compared with 158 electrocutions, 11 uses of the gas chamber, 3 hangings, and 3 deaths by firing squad.

It is therefore hardly surprising, in light of ever-tighter restrictions on the supply of potentially lethal drugs, that those states seeking to carry out executions have been struggling to do so.

Ohio, for example, has more than two dozen prisoners on death row with firm execution dates, but as the Boston Globe reported, without drugs to implement the sentences, it has been repeatedly pushing back the schedule, having carried out no executions since January 2014.

Some states have been passing laws to allow older forms of execution. Utah voted last year to reinstate the firing squad, while Tennessee expanded its use of the electric chair in 2014, in case "lethal injection is deemed unconstitutional or if the execution drugs can’t be obtained."

Other states, instead of seeking alternative methods of execution, are searching for new sources of the drugs they need. Some have expanded their quest overseas, making purchases from unlicensed suppliers in countries such as Britain and India. Others rely on compounding pharmacies, outlets subject to laxer regulation and oversight.

“States that want to carry out executions have a couple of choices: look for other sources of drugs (such as compound pharmacies), change their method of execution, or decide they’re done with capital punishment,” Mr. Dunham tells the Monitor.

“This presents states an opportunity to take a serious look at their execution practices and seriously consider their policy as a whole.”

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