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Posted at 2:39 PM ET, 02/ 1/2011

Europe's dangerous death penalty gesture

By Charles Lane

According to political stereotypes, Europeans are worldly, realistic moral relativists while Americans, with our "exceptionalism" and periodic crusades to democratize the world, are comparatively idealistic. On one issue, though, the roles are reversed. America retains the death penalty, with all of its gloomy assumptions about human nature and grim moral trade-offs. Europe, by contrast, views it as immoral per se, a violation of human rights and basic human dignity. No country that practices capital punishment can be a member of the European Union.

I don't happen to agree that the issue is quite so black and white, and even wrote a small book to explain why. Still, I try to accept Europe's moral absolutism on the death penalty in good faith -- the criminological equivalent of pacifism, not a cheap anti-American posture. Europe's hectoring may even benefit the United States, to the extent that it forces us to confront the very real imperfections in our system.

But just when I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt, some Europeans go and do something irresponsible like restricting the export of sodium thiopental, an anesthetic, to the United States -- because some death penalty states use it in lethal injections. Not only is this gesture unlikely to prevent any executions -- it actually could put the lives and health of innocent Americans at risk.

Here's why. Sodium thiopental has long been a mainstay of general anesthesia; the World Health Organization lists it as an "essential medicine" for any health-care system. In the United States, a newer drug, propofol, has mostly -- but not entirely -- replaced thiopental. According to the American Society of Anesthesiologists, sodium thiopental "is still considered a first-line anesthetic in many cases including those involving geriatric, neurologic, cardiovascular and obstetric patients, for whom the side effects of other medications could lead to serious complications."

Dr. Mark Warner, the organization's president, told me that sodium thiopental's unique properties sometimes make it especially useful in treating certain brain injuries. Doctors use it to induce comas that help the brain "rest" during recovery, so that patients emerge with less loss of function.

Recently, though, the United States has been short of sodium thiopental. Hospira, the only domestic supplier serving more than 3,400 medical facilities, stopped producing it in late 2009, due to problems obtaining its active ingredient from another company. For various business reasons, Hospira found that Italy was best place to restart production, and planned to do so last month.

But, in December, the Italian parliament demanded that Hospira essentially guarantee that none of its made-in-Italy thiopental would be used in lethal injections. Understandably, Hospira could not take that risk; the firm abandoned plans to make thiopental in Italy and ceased production of the drug altogether.

To be sure, the European Union as a whole exempts medically useful sodium thiopental from its human-rights related export controls. But, as Italy showed, that does not bind individual countries. In addition to the Italian action, Britain is planning new licensing requirements on thiopental exports to the United States. Germany's health minister wrote to German pharmaceutical makers, urging them not to export sodium thiopental for executions in the United States; some firms agreed.

The upshot is that the United States must scramble for new sources of thiopental and will probably have to pay premium rates for what it finds. Existing supplies are dwindling. After Hospira announced its decision, the American Society of Anesthesiologists issued a strongly worded statement saying it was "extremely troubled" by Hospira's forced exit from the market and criticizing the anti-death-penalty movement for "using" thiopental supplies to make a point. The doctors noted the "unfortunate irony that many more lives will be lost or put in jeopardy as a result of not having the drug available for its legitimate medical use."

I suppose European restrictions on thiopental might be justifiable if they save a lot of lives on Death Row. They probably won't. U.S. executioners have indeed used thiopental as the first drug in a three-drug lethal injection "cocktail." Thiopental puts a prisoner to sleep. Then two more drugs follow to stop his lungs and heart. But substitutes for thiopental as an execution drug are readily available; Oklahoma uses U.S.-made pentobarbital, as does Ohio, which has moved to a one-drug lethal injection consisting essentially of a massive overdose of that sleep-inducing drug.

Officials in Texas, which executes more people than any other jurisdiction, told me that the state has enough sodium thiopental on hand to conduct the two executions scheduled for February, and is developing plans for later ones. They're not being specific, but my guess is that they will substitute pentobarbital, as Ohio did.

What we have here is not a serious, effective protest, but an exercise in feel-good politics that puts innocent people at risk. You would have thought our friends in the Old World would know by now: In morality, as in economics, there is no free lunch.

By Charles Lane  | February 1, 2011; 2:39 PM ET
Categories:  Lane  | Tags:  Charles Lane  
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Comments

This one is a pretty free lunch. America can torture and kill prisoners to its hearts content. To the extent that those who object to being made accomplices can keep the blood off their hands, more power to them.

If the contest is between European governments who will not be party to killings, or some C-list mouthpiece for the executioners, I'll listen to to the Europeans, thank you.

Posted by: getjiggly2 | February 1, 2011 3:45 PM | Report abuse

"Italy...demanded that Hospira essentially guarantee that none of its made-in-Italy thiopental would be used in lethal injections. Understandably, Hospira could not take that risk;"

All they would ahve to do was put it in their sales contract. Not really much of a risk, is it?

Free market capitalism: If there is a demand for a product, a company will come along to make said product. So, some other company besides Hospira will make the drug if there is a need for the drug.

or is there a problem with free market capitalism?

Posted by: Greent | February 1, 2011 3:46 PM | Report abuse

Give me a break, Lane. This country stands virtually alone with the fundamentalist Islamic states in clinging to this Old Testament barbarism. And now you want people to weep for the poor barbaric country that is now temporarily running out of sodium thiopental and can't get it because we're an international pariah?

Fred Hiatt has made a mockery of this newspaper with his legions of conservative commentators. It's long past time he stepped down so that the WaPo editorial board can join the modern world. Sure, it will mean a bunch fewer war criminals like Henry Kissinger and Elliot Abrams regularly offering us up their "wisdom" on human rights. But I think we'll survive.

STEP DOWN MR. HIATT. You've embarrassed this city enough.

Posted by: B2O2 | February 1, 2011 3:57 PM | Report abuse

USA

Myths
Promotes democracy
Supports universal human rights

Reality
Supports dictators (Pinochet, Mubarak, etc)
Tortures, kills, jails people without giving them a trial.

Posted by: Supertzar | February 1, 2011 4:14 PM | Report abuse

Well, we have to pinch pennies when it comes to health care, but when it comes to murderers?

No amount of money is enough.

Scum like Major Hasan? Kill 13 people in cold blood? Caught on tape?

Multi-million dollar legal defense, year plus trial, psychological evaluations, room, board, the best medical treatment money can buy.

Millions of dollars for the son of a pig and a monkey.

All the money this country wastes on coddling murderers is simply nauseating. Hasan should have been hung with piano wire that very day and his worthless corpse should have been fed to swine that evening.

Posted by: NoDonkey | February 1, 2011 4:15 PM | Report abuse

What an awful article. It's the same old 'if we don't do it someone else will' argument. Just as well that some countries are refusing not to participate (the supply for other purposes is a red herring - lots of drugs have supply problems).

Posted by: healthobserver | February 1, 2011 4:20 PM | Report abuse

If, as in the murder charges against Jared Loughner, there is eyewitness and recorded evidence regarding the guilt of the accused--that there's no chance that anyone else committed a certain crime that some person was charged with, especially in a murder trial--let's simply go back to the biblical admonition: "an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth". As an example Mr. Loughner should simply have a loaded 9-mm. pistol held right in front of his head and the trigger pulled. Any pre-meditated capital murder of this sort should be punished by giving the absolutely-convicted killer only the same method of death shown by autopsy to have been perpetrated upon the victim(s).

Posted by: marc85 | February 1, 2011 4:24 PM | Report abuse

supertazr is correct and the columnst is very naive.

Posted by: newagent99 | February 1, 2011 4:44 PM | Report abuse

"But, in December, the Italian parliament demanded that Hospira essentially guarantee that none of its made-in-Italy thiopental would be used in lethal injections. Understandably, Hospira could not take that risk...."

Why is it "understandable"? Why couldn't Hospira agree to put a clause in all sales contracts in which the buyer certifies that the drug will not be used in executions?

Posted by: Katya2 | February 1, 2011 4:47 PM | Report abuse

This is about more than a drug supply: it is a group of civilized nations telling a barbaric nation that it does not approve of its harsh policies on crime. Doctors would have more to complain about if they were careful about sanctioning physicians who participated in executions, torture, and so on.
As in the case of slavery, Europe is leading the world toward human rights while America is lagging behind. Unfortunately, to many American exceptionalism means that we are above international law and, since we are better than anyone else, we can do whatever we want with no consequences. If we were an individual we might be termed a sociopath on the basis of that philosophy.

Posted by: scientist1 | February 1, 2011 4:59 PM | Report abuse

Mr Lane, this a disgusting line of reasoning. State killing of murderers is pointless. It is absolutely unnecessary and the practice coarsens our lives.

Posted by: waynej2 | February 1, 2011 5:28 PM | Report abuse

After reading most of these posts, I wonder why we even have a trial. Just let murders walk freely among us. Maybe one of the people commenting on how barbaric we are will have the pleasure of meeting one of them.

Posted by: gfhoward258 | February 1, 2011 5:55 PM | Report abuse

When I see the miscarriages of justice that have occured in Great Britain - Birmingham Six, Guildford Four, etc - These people are still alive as a result of the decision by Europe to ban the death penalty - Thank you Europe. I am sure there are cases in the United States where people have been executed and are subsequently found innocent. Unfortunately, these people cannot be brought back to life - Hopefully the USA will join the nations who do not list the death penalty as part of the state's justice armoury.

Posted by: michael_ah_oleary | February 1, 2011 6:07 PM | Report abuse

let a thug rape and kill someone special to europe...
then watch them execute him...

Posted by: DwightCollins | February 1, 2011 6:11 PM | Report abuse

The death penalty is barbaric. We are in no position to criticize others when they resort to barbaric acts like stoning when we execute people ourselves. I'd like to know how many innocent people have been executed by the US, we've certainly had enough on death row proved innocent. Thank God I live in a non-death penalty state. The death penalty deters no one and states with the death penalty have a higher murder rate.

Posted by: MNUSA | February 1, 2011 6:12 PM | Report abuse

The death penalty is barbaric. We are in no position to criticize others when they resort to barbaric acts like stoning when we execute people ourselves. I'd like to know how many innocent people have been executed by the US, we've certainly had enough on death row proved innocent. Thank God I live in a non-death penalty state. The death penalty deters no one and states with the death penalty have a higher murder rate.

Posted by: MNUSA | February 1, 2011 6:13 PM | Report abuse

I take special pride in seeing people on here spew about how Loughner and the Military guy, each who killed mulitple people should just have guns held to their head. That the death penalty is justified.
Maybe or maybe not.

Could it be the Europeans do not have to make such decisions because they have some semblance of GUN CONTROL there that makes mass killings like those seen in the US so unique there. You don't see people in the EU going out and shooting up crowds of people that often.

Here it is a regular phenomenon. So sure we so accustomed to killing, it is easier for us to just kill the killers. NO harm no foul.
Maybe we should step back and wonder why examine our societal role in mass killings.

Posted by: racerdoctcgr | February 1, 2011 10:27 PM | Report abuse

Do any Italian companies export bullets? Have any Italian automobiles been used in suicide bombings?

Posted by: FollowTheLogic | February 2, 2011 8:18 PM | Report abuse

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