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Medicine, Mental Health, and Capital Punishment 

Medicine, Mental Health, and Capital Punishment
Medicine, Mental Health, and Capital Punishment

James Welsh

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date: 22 October 2021

James Welsh explores the death penalty in human rights law and ethics, its implementation and the role of health and mental health professionals. Executing people with serious mental illness or intellectual disability contravenes norms of justice and rational penal policy. The death penalty is a cruel and inhuman punishment that provokes and worsens mental disorder and suffering of the condemned and his or her family, and has a brutalizing effect on those carrying out the penalty and society in general. While international standards exempt children and people with mental and intellectual disabilities, in practice these groups are not always spared this punishment. The American Medical Association holds the only ethical involvement is in supporting the patient, not facilitating the execution. Welsh documents the challenge posed to mental health professionals, since mental competence is relevant to standing trial, to terminating appeals, for ‘qualifying’ for execution. Treating to restore competence for execution is unethical, while intervening in attempted suicide on death row to allow the state to do the job soon after raises ethical challenges. Not identifying mental impairments in those accused and subsequent disregard for their rights is evident at each step. The issue raises questions about wider social issues: the quality and availability of mental health services, and the need for mental health professionals to speak out for abolition.

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