Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc has blocked the use of its products in US states that permit lethal injections, the company announced on Friday.
Prior to the move, Pfizer was the last remaining source of lethal injection drugs for US states, as more than 25 other global pharmaceutical companies, including ones in the US, have taken similar steps. Obtaining the necessary drugs for lethal injections — which have been the primary method of execution in the US for the last forty years — was also made more difficult in 2012, when the European Commission imposed strict export controls to ensure they weren't being used "in capital punishment, torture, or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."
"We are enforcing a distribution restriction for specific products that have been part of, or considered by some states, for their lethal injection protocols, " Pfizer said on their website, adding that the company "strongly objects to the use of its products as lethal injections for capital punishment."
"This is a critical turning point in the history of capital punishment in America," anti-death penalty organization Reprieve said in a statement. "Pfizer's announcement cements the mainstream pharmaceutical industry position on lethal injection executions. It reflects widespread unease about the procedure, and raises fundamental questions about the administration of the death penalty in America."
Lethal injection has, for decades, been touted as the most humane way to kill prisoners. But increasingly, this view has been called into question by advocates and lawmakers alike.
Maya Foa, the death penalty coordinator at Reprieve, noted that "a number of recent high profile botched executions [is] exposing the true brutality of lethal injection executions."
"Far from being humane and clinical, lethal injection is the chemical equivalent of being burned at the stake, so it's little wonder healthcare companies don't want their medicines anywhere near the execution chamber," Foa said.
In one notorious incident, Oklahoma's execution of inmate Clayton Lockett in December 2014 lasted 43 minutes and created what a prison warden who witnessed the ordeal described as a "bloody mess." Doctors refuse to administer lethal injections because it would violate the Hippocratic oath, which compels physicians to do no harm. Decisions about which drugs to use are often left up to prison officials and authorities with no medical training.
The list of products which Pfizer will block states from using in executions includes the powerful anesthetic propofol, the drug that caused Michael Jackson's death. The other Pfizer products the drugmaker said it will block from use in executions are pancuronium bromide, potassium chloride, midazolam, hydromorphone, rocuronium bromide, and vecuronium bromide.
The drug midazolam is one of three chemicals commonly used in lethal injection cocktails, and it is supposed to knock prisoners out so that they can't feel excruciating pain as the lethal drugs flow into their bloodstream. Prisoner rights advocates argued before the Supreme Court last year that midazolam actually "has no pain-relieving properties and cannot reliably produce a deep, coma-like unconsciousness." The Supreme Court nevertheless ruled 5-4 that the use of midazolam in executions is legal and does not violate the US Constitution's Eighth Amendment, which prohibits "cruel and unusual punishment."
"Under the court's new rule, it would not matter whether the state intended to use midazolam, or instead to have petitioners drawn and quartered, slowly tortured to death, or actually burned at the stake," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in her dissent to the ruling.
In another dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer said the court should now debate the constitutionality of the death penalty itself. The court struck down part of Florida's death penalty law earlier this year on the grounds that it did not give jurors a sufficient role in deciding whether inmates should be executed, but a 1976 ruling about the constitutionality of capital punishment still stands.
Faced with a shortage of lethal injection drugs, some of the 31 states where the death penalty is legal have gone back to the drawing board to consider other execution methods.
Last month, Virginia's governor Terry McAuliffe vetoed a bill at the final hour which would have brought back the electric chair as the default method of execution. The bill was intended to address the nationwide lethal injection drug shortage. Instead of bringing back the chair, McAuliffe proposed an alternative, which would allow the state to hire a pharmacy to secretly cook up a special batch of the deadly drugs. Under McAuliffe's amendment, the name of the pharmacy would be withheld from the public to shield it from scrutiny.
"Instead of passing secrecy laws intended to undermine the safeguards put in place by these companies, executing states should respect the legitimate commercial interests of the pharmaceutical industry and agree to stop misusing their medicines in lethal injection executions," Maya Foa said in response to Pfizer's decision.
If the drugs run out, Wyoming and Oklahoma plan to use gas chambers, while Utah's contingency plan is to bring back firing squads. Mississippi is also considering legislation to allow the use of firing squads.
US executions have been on the decline since 1935, when states killed 197 prisoners. The highest execution total in recent years was 98 in 1999, and last year states killed 28 people, the fewest since 1991. Southern states have carried out 81 percent of the 1,429 executions in the US since 1976, according to the Marshall Project, and three states — Texas, Oklahoma, and Virginia — have been responsible for more than half of all the executions nationwide in that time.
Image via Florida Department of Corrections website