Death penalty states may have difficulty finding lethal injection medical equipment


The Intercept reports that four companies that manufacture medical equipment, including Baxter International Inc., B. Braun Medical Inc., Fresenius Kabi, and Johnson & Johnson, are refusing to sell their products for use in executions.

The companies produce “IV catheters, syringes, medical tubing, and IV bags, products states rely on to administer lethal injection,” according to the Intercept.

With death penalty states already scrambling to find lethal injection drugs, an inability to access the medical equipment needed for executions could add to the hurdles corrections officials will have to clear to continue state killing. 

“Pharmaceutical and medical equipment manufacturers are in the business of saving lives, not ending them,” says Dr. Philip Hansten, Pharmacology Professor Emeritus at Washington State University. “So it is not surprising that they object to the use of their products in executions. Also, most of these manufacturers are multinational corporations, and many of them have large operations in other developed countries, almost all of which oppose capital punishment. This may contribute to their desire to avoid use of their products for executions.”

When pharmaceutical companies refused to allow their drugs to be used in executions starting about ten years ago, state officials turned to compounding pharmacies and even the black market to find the needed drugs. “Given the objections of manufacturers, one wonders if corrections officers will try to obtain IV equipment from illegal sources, as they did for execution drugs. It would not be surprising,” Hansten says. “Apparently corrections officials don’t see the irony of breaking the law to execute people who have been convicted of breaking the law. It’s a bit unseemly for government entities to be skulking around the shadows looking for unscrupulous suppliers of drugs and equipment, particularly since products from such sources may not work as expected and cause more suffering for the person being executed.”

According to the Intercept, “McKesson Corp. and Cardinal Health Inc., two of the biggest U.S. medical wholesalers, did not return requests for comment. Both have contracts to provide medical equipment to states that actively employ the death penalty, records show.”

McKesson is a company that, in 2017, announced that it would not allow its drugs to be used in lethal injections. In fact, it was granted a temporary restraining order by a circuit court in Arkansas prohibiting the Arkansas Department of Correction from using vecuronium bromide obtained by McKesson for lethal injection purposes, so it’s puzzling why it’s not adopting a similar policy concerning the use of its equipment. 

What effect this ban will have remains to be seen, but Hansten notes it could have negative repercussions beyond stymying death penalty states. “Corrections officials are apparently unconcerned that their actions to acquire products for lethal injection has made legitimate medical care more difficult in the US. It is harder to get drugs like pentobarbital and propofol in the US for patients who need them, and this may now occur for scarce infusion equipment as well. Corrections departments have hoarded execution drugs, so there is every reason to expect they would do the same for infusion equipment. Moreover, their zealotry has led them to extreme and (and often expensive) practices in order to obtain products for lethal injection. This is just one of the reasons why the death penalty is so much more expensive than life in prison,” he says.

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