Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Last-Minute Complications

By Michael Cook

Botched executions provide a timely warning that assisted suicide does not necessarily lead to a peaceful death.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

The gold standard for experiments on human beings is a randomly assigned double-blind placebo-controlled study. Naturally, organising one of these to assess the effectiveness of lethal drugs is unlikely. Unless you live in North Korea, the chances of getting approval from an ethical review committee is very low.

Instead, we need to rely upon experience from the United States. And this suggests that there can be glitches in choosing the date of one’s death.

In a recent issue of the Journal of Law and the Biosciences, Sean Riley, an end-of-life researcher currently studying in The Netherlands, reviewed the patchy record of the drugs used in executions and physician-assisted suicide (PAS). He summarises his findings as follows:

The pervasive belief that these, or any, noxious drugs are guaranteed to provide for a peaceful and painless death must be dispelled; modern medicine cannot yet achieve this. Certainly some, if not most, executions and suicides have been complication-free, but this notion has allowed much of the general public to write them off as humane, and turn a blind eye to any potential problems. Executions or PAS have never been as clean as they appear, even with the US’s medicalization efforts during the 1980s.

His research gives a different spin to arguments put forward by supporters of assisted suicide in Australia and elsewhere...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.