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Doctors in the Death Chamber: Where Ethics and the State Collide

Doctors have been central participants in the death penalty since the time of Dr. Joseph Guillotin and the French Revolution. Dr. Guillotin (the "e" was added in error later by others) was against the death penalty but proposed the use of a mechanical decapitation machine in 1789. In his view, this would enable a more private humane execution that itself would be an interim step to banning the death penalty completely. In 1890, with the development of the electric chair, Dr. Alfred Southwick, the head of the commission which recommended its use, was reported as saying "we live in a higher civilization from this day". The electric chair itself fell out of favor after evidence that the electrical flow frequently arced, cooking flesh and sometimes igniting prisoners.

Over 200 years later, a new report from Amnesty International clearly shows how the death penalty is still reliant on the involvement of the medical profession, in breach of clear ethical guidelines to the contrary. A founding principle of medicine has always been "first do no harm".

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