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Top N.M. Doctor in Ethics Flap Over Execution

Watchdog group says he should lose license for helping state

TUESDAY, Nov. 6, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- A watchdog group is calling for New Mexico's top doctor to lose his license for prescribing the deadly drugs for an execution scheduled today.

Dr. Fred Pintz, chief state medical officer, refused to comment on allegations by Public Citizen that he "flagrantly" breached principles of medical ethics when he authorized use of the drugs that will kill inmate Terry Clark by lethal injection. Clark was condemned to death for the 1986 rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl.

Pintz reportedly has since reversed his decision and is no longer involved in obtaining the drugs, which generally include an anesthetic followed by a paralyzing agent and then, in some cases, potassium chloride to stop the heart. However, neither Pintz nor the state Department of Health would confirm the change in stance. Jackie Campo, a health department spokeswoman, says the matter has "legal implications" for Pintz that have yet to be resolved.

Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group, in Washington, D.C., called on Dr. John Romine, president of the New Mexico State Board of Medical Examiners, to overturn the prescription order and revoke Pintz's license.

"Unless Dr. Pintz is willing to immediately revoke his order for providing these drugs and ensure that the drugs are returned to the pharmacy in the State Department of Health, I urge that there be an emergency suspension of his license to practice medicine with the plan to permanently revoke it," Wolfe wrote in a letter to the medical examiners' board.

The American Medical Association (AMA) and other health groups have previously spoken out against doctors participating in executions. The practice "unequivocally contravenes the Oath of Hippocrates as well as the AMA Code of Ethics," Wolfe wrote.

Wolfe, in a phone interview, says Pintz's decision to reverse his decision, if true, would set "an important precedent."

Dr. Frank Riddick Jr., a New Orleans doctor and chair of the AMA council on ethical and judicial affairs, says his group's position is "crystal-clear: A physician should not be a participant in a legally authorized execution. It's not compatible with the role of a physician, which is to be a healer."

The AMA's ethics guidelines discourage doctors from participating in executions in any way, from administering drugs to monitoring vital signs.

Riddick says violating this principle could result in expulsion from medical societies at the state level and ultimately from the national body.

Romine says the medical board hadn't received the Public Citizen letter by Monday morning. But even when it does, it can't act on the petition because state law requires that licensure complaints be notarized, which it wasn't. However, Romine says Wolfe "has a good point, because our board does not sanction any physician taking life."

The New Mexico medical board was first alerted to the execution ethics issue in August by a Santa Fe doctor who was concerned that a doctor would be required to certify Clark's death. A review of the AMA ethics handbook satisfied Romine that physicians could indeed sign such documents despite the intentional nature of the fatality. "Our position was, we don't want anyone being cremated unless they're pronounced dead. That's really not a violation of any ethics."

Public Citizen says Pintz became involved in the condemned man's case because the state Department of Corrections lost its medical officer and because a company that provides prison health services refused to get involved. Then a state pharmacist refused to provide the lethal drugs without an order from a doctor. Public Citizen says Pintz stepped in at the request of Alex Valdez, the state's Secretary of Health. The health department, the prison and Pintz himself would not confirm the details of Pintz's involvement.

Some states require doctors to be present at executions and have passed laws excusing them from legal ramifications.

New Mexico last executed an inmate in 1960, by gas chamber. Uncertain prison officials have had to import advisors from Arizona and especially Texas, which has vastly more experience in the practice. As of Oct. 25, Texas had executed 253 prisoners since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Of the 739 executions in the United States since then, 574 have come by lethal injection, the anti-capital punishment group says.

Gerges Scott, a spokesman for the New Mexico Department of Corrections in Santa Fe, says despite the ethical controversy, Clark's execution will proceed as planned at 7 p.m. Mountain time today.

"We are completely lawful in our procurement of the drugs necessary to perform the execution, and we don't feel it's necessary to get into every detail" about the process, Scott says. "I'm not really concerned about the medical ethics of somebody in Washington, D.C."

Pintz became New Mexico's top doctor in November 2000. In a statement at the time of his appointment, Pintz said he was "drawn to the Department of Health for a number of reasons. The Department's mission of improving the health and well-being of all New Mexicans is something I truly believe in and have worked toward in other aspects of my career."

What To Do: For a look at how states administer lethal injections, try HowStuffWorks. You can also check the Death Penalty Information Center.

SOURCES: Interviews with Sidney Wolfe, M.D., director, Health Research Group, Public Citizen, Washington, D.C.; Fred Pintz, M.D., chief medical officer, State of New Mexico, Santa Fe; Jackie Campo, spokeswoman, New Mexico Department of Health, Santa Fe; Gerges Scott, spokesman, New Mexico Department of Corrections, Santa Fe; Frank Riddick Jr., M.D., C.E.O., Alton Ochsner Medical Foundation, New Orleans, and John Romine, M.D., president, New Mexico Board of Medical Examiners, Farmington; Public Citizen letter
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