Journal of the Danish Medical Association 168/45 6 November 2006




The death penalty is still used in many countries, often with physician participation. Two years ago the Nordic Medical Associations passed a joint Nordic resolution against the death penalty. This is published here for the first time. In this connection, Søren Ganes from Amnesty’s Medical Group explains how Amnesty uses medical resolutions in its work for human rights.


Søren Ganes, M.D.,


In its work for human rights Amnesty International (AI) appeals to the ethics and conscience of the general public as well as directly to governments in hope of preventing human rights violations. Since AI has no physical or economic resources to ensure the observance of its high standards in relation to either individuals or the authorities, the impact of the organisation is based solely on the power of persuasion and conviction.


Amnesty International appeals to all responsible human beings and organisations to treat their fellow man in a decent and humane fashion.


AI’s work is based on the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which among other things proclaims:

a)      Everyone has the right to life, freedom and security of person

b)      No one may be submitted to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.


AI was founded by the London lawyer, Peter Benenson, in 1961 on the basis of the rights mentioned above, among other things.

Since then, resolutions and declarations passed by the authorities or powerful national or international organisations have been the fundamental basis for all AI work including all human rights campaigns related to medical or health issues.


It is consequently of vital importance for AI to have forceful medical resolutions to serve as the basis of its arguments when approaching foreign authorities, national or international medical associations or individual colleagues.


Physicians and the death penalty

The medical profession is unfortunately deeply involved in the use of the death penalty in many countries. In several countries including the US it can be argued that it would be virtually impossible to use the death penalty at all if physicians refused to participate.


Medical participation in the death penalty takes place in a variety of ways:

-         In a capital trial when the accused may be sentenced to death if a physician states as his “objective” opinion that in fact the accused in future “will pose a continuing threat to society.”

-         On death row in the form of compulsory treatment of mentally ill condemned prisoners so that the degree of their insanity is no longer sufficient to prevent their being executed by law.

Physician participation in an execution includes, but is not limited to, the following actions: prescribing or administering tranquilizers and other psychotropic agents and medications that are part of the execution procedure; monitoring vital signs on site or remotely (including monitoring electrocardiograms); attending or observing an execution as a physician; and rendering of technical advice regarding execution.

In the case where the method of execution is lethal injection, the following actions by the physician would also constitute physician participation in execution: selecting injection sites; starting intravenous lines as a port for a lethal injection device; prescribing, preparing, administering, or supervising injection drugs or their doses or types; inspecting, testing, or maintaining lethal injection devices; and consulting with or supervising lethal injection personnel.


-         Prior to and during the execution itself in the form of rendering professional or technical advice (such as furnishing the necessary (execution) drugs, assisting in

-         venous cutdown, supervising the entire intravenous execution procedure up to the final confirmation of death).

-         After the execution in the form of organ transplants.


Medical ethics may also be undermined if physicians tolerate their colleagues’ violation of the profession’s ethical standards or the resolutions adopted by its organisations or even actively support the use of the death penalty and physician participation. The opinions and attitudes of physicians and the medical profession will often carry great weight with the general public and the authorities in a debate on the death penalty.


A long, hard battle

Unfortunately, merely adopting excellent ethical guiding principles is not enough. They also have to be observed. Consequently a crucial aspect of AI’s work consists in urging medical associations, authorities and individuals to take the necessary steps whenever ethical standards and resolutions are violated. It is also vital to convince the medical associations that have passed strong and respected ethical guidelines of the urgency of addressing their sister organisations and others in countries in which human rights are violated and where the medical profession reacts weakly or not at all.  This can be a long and difficult battle as this example from the US illustrates:


The American Medical Association (AMA) has adopted a set of excellent guidelines against physician involvement in the death penalty, but they are only familiar to a very small number of American physicians and the AMA does not seem to have taken steps to ensure that the guidelines are observed nor are there any sanctions against physicians who violate them.


Consequently many US physicians continue to participate in various ways in most US executions, albeit anonymously, to the point that the physicians are paid in cash and do not appear in the prison service’s books. The prison authorities maintain that physicians participating in executions are not acting in their medical capacity but merely as prison officers (for which reason they are not in breach of any medical resolutions).


The resolutions must be upheld

Several national medical organisations have now adopted resolutions against physician participation in capital punishment. Amnesty International believes that the next step for these organizations is to ensure that the resolutions are respected:  to work towards abolishing the death penalty as such.


In this context standards such as the Joint Nordic Resolution against all Use of the Death Penalty, as published in the present issue of the journal of the Danish Medical Association, are essential for Amnesty International’s work with medical issues. It is impossible to overestimate the value of the unequivocal wording of the 1986 resolution against physician participation in the death penalty or that of the new resolution (of 2004) against the death penalty.


This is clearly born out in the words of Amnesty International’s medical coordinator at the International Secretariat in London:
“It is in this light that the Nordic Resolution is important. By making clear that the five Nordic Medical Associations oppose the death penalty (as does the BMA (see insert)), the Nordic Association Resolution causes thinking people to review their beliefs on the death penalty and its relationship to building or impeding the development of a better, more just world”


The present article is a revised version of the Danish article, “Sådan arbejder Amnesty mod dødsstraf”, which unfortunately contained misleading information.

 (Ugeskrift Læger 2006; 168 (37):3158-9),

The homepage of the Danish Medical Group against the Death penalty is to be found at:


The death penalty in Denmark.

            Before 1930: Capital punishment for various offences by hanging. Last carried   out in 1892. In the 19th century many poor, unmarried women were beheaded for         killing their illegitimate newborn babies.

            1930 (entered into force in 1933): The death penalty is abolished for civil           offences.

            1945: The law on treason is introduced with retroactive application. 76 are        sentenced to death, 46 are executed – the last one in 1950.

            1978: The death penalty is abolished in the military criminal code

            1994: Final abolition for all crimes (treason, other subversive activities, law on    sanctions for war crimes).  Denmark can now accede to the UN Convention on        the Death Penalty.


British Medical Association’s statement regarding the death penalty:

The British Medical Association stated in 2001that “… the BMA is opposed to the death penalty worldwide.”