The Dotted Line Between Lethal Injection and Euthanasia

When I first starting writing The Euthanist, one of the reasons I was drawn to the subject matter was the hotbed of controversy around euthanasia. There’s a battle happening right now in the U.S. and abroad about end-of-life decisions, and how much control people can have over these decisions.

In the U.S., only five states currently have legislation that supports physician-assisted suicide: Washington, Vermont, Montana, New Mexico and Oregon (for those curious about Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act, arguably the most progressive legislation of its kind in the country, I recommend the documentary “How to Die In Oregon,” which you can stream on Netflix). I should also note the difference between physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia. In the former, the doctor or another person helps a patient administer a lethal dose of medication. In the latter, a person other than the patient can administer that dose. States continue to debate end-of-life laws, with the most recent bill ultimately rejected in Maine.

Across the world, The Netherlands and Belgium lead a handful of countries that have legalized both euthanasia and assisted suicide, but the issue still remains controversial in these counties. In January this year, Belgium denied a prison inmate the right to die because the country opposes the death penalty. And this raises another element that interested me—the connection between euthanasia and capital punishment.

The major drugs used for assisted suicide and euthanasia are the same drugs used in a majority of lethal injections in the United States. One company, Danish pharmaceutical manufacturer Lundbeck, has blocked distribution of these drugs to prison systems to stop their use in lethal injections. Hospira Inc., the only manufacturer of sodium thiopental in the U.S. (a drug that features prominently in The Euthanist), stopped production in 2011 due to pressure from death penalty opponents. With a shortage of these drugs, prison systems have started improvising with untested drugs in their executions, which has possibly contributed to a recent string of botched executions in 2014.

Most of my friends have strong opinions on both capital punishment and euthanasia. They’re either vehemently for or against both. Typically, I find that if someone’s for one, s/he’s against the other. When I was doing research for the book, that fact that there was such as tangible connection to both issues fascinated me and brought up a lot of strong emotions, which made me feel like this was a subject worth exploring.

I suppose the fundamental issue that captivated me related to death itself. Death is a universal phenomenon in life; we’ll all go through it. Yet the nature of death changes depending on the baggage we bring to it. I’ll explain.

In the case of lethal injection and euthanasia (or physician-assisted suicide), the method of death can be the same. The person who dies could receive the same dose of the same drug, and provided the physician or execution team administers the dose competently, they might experience the same degree of physical pain. But the nature of that death will differ vastly based on how that individual and witnesses share that experience.

An inmate might feel a greater amount of terror than someone with a terminal illness, who might welcome the release from chronic pain. The family of a loved one might grieve, while a witness at a lethal injection might feel a sense of justice or even revulsion. Death can take the form of mercy, revenge, or spiritual abomination, depending the people involved and people’s individual values.

When I set out to write The Euthanist, I wanted to delve into how we think about death. The story wraps both the right-do-die movement and capital punishment together into a thriller that will hopefully entertain and ignite discussion. These issues deserve a lot more dialogue, and I would love to see this book become fodder that encourages more talk and thought about them.

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