US hospitals are facing shortages of a key medicine used in surgical anaesthesia as death rows stockpile the same drug for use in executions, new figures have shown.
Prisons across the USA are holding large stockpiles of pancuronium bromide, a paralysing agent designed to relax muscles during surgery, in order to use it as part of a three-drug execution ‘cocktail.’
The US Food and Drug administration (FDA) has repeatedly warned that the country is facing shortages of the medicine, which date back as far as 2010. Yet various Departments of Corrections, which don’t use the drug for medicinal purposes, but only in executions, are hoarding large quantities. Virginia alone, for example, holds 60 vials of the drug, enough to treat roughly 50-60 patients in emergency medical operations.
The executing states’ behaviour is particularly controversial as the use of pancuronium – which slowly suffocates the prisoner – is not even necessary in executions, as a third drug is employed to stop the heart. The second stage is purely cosmetic, paralysing the prisoner so that onlookers can’t see any signs that they might be in distress. Worse still, by paralysing the prisoner, the use of pancuronium creates a serious risk that they will be left unable to signal that the first drug, an anaesthetic, has failed to work – and therefore will die in excruciating pain, unable to move or even to speak.
Legal action charity Reprieve is calling on manufacturers to put in place procedures to ensure that the drug reaches only legitimate, medical users, and is not diverted to execution chambers – which will also help to reduce the shortages hospitals currently face.
Pancuronium bromide is manufactured by Hospira, a company which has repeatedly stated its opposition to the use of its medicines in executions. Thus far, however, it has taken no active steps to prevent this use. The result is that Hospira’s pancuronium bromide is currently unavailable for the doctors who have legitimate medical need for it, while executioners apparently have ample supplies.
Reprieve investigator, Maya Foa said: “Regardless of your views on the death penalty, it cannot be right that hospitals are facing shortages of medicines while executing chambers sit on huge stockpiles. These drugs are being diverted from their legitimate, medical use in order to kill. Manufacturers like Hospira must put in place controls to ensure this is not allowed to happen.”