Monday, February 5, 2024

Civilized Societies Don't Execute or Euthanize Human Beings

Jacqueline Abernathy
By Dr Jacqueline Abernathy

On January 25th, 2024, the State of Alabama legally executed one of it's citizens, Kenneth Eugene Smith with nitrogen gas. The Alabama Department of Corrections concocted this novel method to kill, apparently due to its botched previous attempt to kill Smith by lethal injection and the shortage of lethal barbiturates (the same poisons prescribed for assisted suicide). The parallels between killing by assisted suicide and killing death row inmates does not end there. If anything, our society's tolerance and embrace of legal lethal violence toward our fellow humans can best be described with one word: uncivilized.
Whether it is misplaced and disordered compassion toward the terminally ill or a perverted view of justice for a convicted murderer, destroying human life is simply not what civilized societies do. These are just two sides of the same barbaric coin.
I have previously made the argument regarding lethal injection and its connection to self-imposed euthanasia. When I learned what Smith would endure while dying by nitrogen gas, it turned my stomach just the same as when I first learned how uncivilized capital punishment is while I was participating in anti-euthanasia activism nearly two decades ago. 

In August of 2004, I was a 23-year-old graduate student from Texas returning to Tampa, Florida solely to fight for Terri Schindler Schiavo to get a reprieve from execution by dehydration and starvation. I had been on her hospice’s lawn that prior September 2003 when Terri's Law passed through the Florida statehouse so then-Governor Jeb Bush would feel empowered to sign the executive order that restored her feeding tube (after it had been removed the second time). This executive order was a life-saving, emergency stopgap measure, rapidly winding its way through the courts, and was eventually vacated, leading to the third and final attempt on her life. We activists on Terri's behalf knew that we were on borrowed time, so we set out to unseat George Greer, the unrepentant elected judge who had repeatedly condemned Terri to an unfathomable, inhumane demise and would later, sadly succeed. Since 2004 was an election year, I went to Tampa to campaign for Jan Govan, an attorney who had stepped up to challenge Greer specifically because Greer kept signing Terri’s unjust death warrant.

I don't recall how we got to the topic of capital punishment, but I do remember distinctly being surprised and perplexed at how Mr. Govan started talking about executions via the electric chair. Mr. Govan told me what happens during electrocution, that executioners must plug up the condemned person's orifices with gauze because otherwise, they will ooze. I immediately recoiled and said that that is no way for a civilized society to treat a human being. At the time I was fighting to spare Terri an unthinkable death, but so was the atrocity described to me. Although intravenous poisoning is largely considered a more humane alternative to electrocution, being killed by Pentobarbital is not as sanitized as it sounds and certainly not quick (one execution took two hours). What Kenneth Smith endured lasted over 15 minutes, but could easily be deemed far more macabre, not to mention dangerous for those administering the gas and anyone in proximity to it. Nitrogen hypoxia is so rife with complications and dangers that veterinarians rebuke this method to put household pets to sleep. Hypoxia itself is a euphemism for suffocation and nitrogen is a poor palatable option to smothering with a pillow or gripping one’s hands on someone’s neck. Rather than choke Smith, he would die from asphyxiation as nitrogen restricts oxygen intake. This caused him to writhe for two minutes and gasp for seven before the executioners closed the curtain to the viewing room.

Nitrogen hypoxia is so rife with complications and dangers that veterinarians rebuke this method for use on household pets. Hypoxia itself is a euphemism for suffocation and nitrogen is merely a more palatable option for executioners than smothering with a pillow or gripping one’s hands on someone’s neck.

I once made earnest arguments to highlight how cruel the removal of feeding tubes is by drawing a parallel between Terri's fate and convicted murderers on death row. This was prior to learning how unthinkable capital punishment is. Back then, I drew an arbitrary distinction between guilty people and innocent people, saying quips such as "Dehydration and starvation would be unconstitutional to execute a serial killer and yet fine for an innocent woman with a disability." I may have said such a thing and been overheard by Mr. Govan, although he acted as if he was speaking to someone anti-death penalty like himself. I soon was. It was an education on the inhumanity of capital punishment that struck me as something no civilized society could do to another human being, regardless of what crimes that human may have committed. I was there to protect one human from being killed and my eyes were opened to how unfathomable killing of any human being is. My deep, concern for Terri was born of a heart that has always and will always ache at the thought of denying any human being food and water (or even denying this to an animal for that matter - any creature capable of enduring that pain). 

Experts and authorities at the United Nations called to cancel this execution and condemned this method as a form of torture. Reading about how Kenneth Smith would ultimately die struck the same part of my soul. The United States of America stands apart along with Japan as the only first-world nations that practice this crime against humanity. This puts our nation in the company of other human rights-abusing countries in the Middle East and Asia. Yet sadly, more and more developed countries are embracing euthanasia, ironically under the guise of poisoning as the humane alternative to a natural death.

Kenneth Smith’s last words were, “Tonight Alabama causes humanity to take a step backwards. I’m leaving with love, peace, and light." He was half right. He left thrashing and gasping, hardly a peaceful, loving demise. He was correct that humanity did regress into the inhumane. 

Each U.S. state that embraces assisted suicide also affronts and reverts our collective humanity. I hope beyond hope that this travesty opens others’ eyes as well and converts hearts on the death penalty like mine was, but likewise, I pray that it will inspire the same epiphany for those who oppose the death penalty yet support assisted suicide. 

It does not matter how we destroy a human life; it is always wrong. We must reject all forms of legal killing and take a step forward to reclaim our integrity; at least if we want to call ourselves civilized ever again.


Anonymous said...

You obviously have never been a rape victim like I’ve been. 50 Years ago & I still remember it vividly. After 10 HOURS of my drunken rapist torture, he passed out & I was able to escape. He admitted to me that he was going to murder me, & asked me where did I want my body to be laid? He was going to take me in my car & later kill me. He had a knife that he routinely jabbed in me to warn me not to escape. He was a Marine & knew my Marine husband wouldn’t be home for days. He didn’t have a mental health issue. He knew EXACTLY what he was going to do before he broke into my apt. He had a wicked, evil mind & heart & thought he could get away with murder; just like Kenneth Eugene Smith.
To feel empathy for a man who had no pity whatsoever on his innocent victim, (who had done NOTHING to this man) - but BEAT & STABBED Mrs. Elizabeth Sennett around a dozen times in the head & neck. All for the love of money he was to gain for murdering her. I found your article absolutely offensive to purposely persuade others to believe that putting Kenneth Eugene Smith was uncivilized & the death penalty should be stopped. Kenneth Smith suffered for 22 fricken minutes before he died. And for you to have the gall to believe that Mr. Smith didn’t deserve that ‘torture’, is absolutely unjustifiable!

ASP Connecticut said...

Well said Jackie. Matthew 25 is appropriate here. We love God only as much as the one we love the least.

Alex Schadenberg said...

I am so sorry for the traumatic crime that you experienced 50 years ago. Nothing can be said that would reduce the pain and the memory of what happened to you.

I agree with keeping people like Kenneth Smith in jail for the rest of their lives, but I do not agree with state sanctioned killing.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Jackie for your comment.

Ruth E said...

Anonymous, like you, I too am a rape victim. Yet what went thru my mind during the rape was that violence begets violence. The rape was my first-ever experience of sexuality, and my commitment to NON-VIOLENCE was increased 100 fold during my experience. We have a choice in our lives either to BREAK the cycle of violence OR to escalate the cycle by sanctioning further violence.
Hopefully you reported your rape to law enforcement, so the offender could be caught and punished. Rape is not a “capital” crime, and by itself is not publishable with the death penalty. However incarcerating a rapist punishes him. And it may save other women from being preyed upon while the offender is deprived of his freedoms.
We can teach that violence is unacceptable by modeling non-violent solutions in our own lives. We don’t—for instance—punish a rapist by ordering him to be raped. Neither should we punish a murderer by murdering him. In a civilized society, we have the ability to separate a criminal in prison. The sentence of Life Without Possibility of Parole (LWOP) is enforceable.
There is no humane way to take a human life. No matter how horrible a capital murder was, ordinary prison staff would be responsible at some point for killing the killer. Wardens & corrections officers have to be trained repeatedly to take every step involved in a state-sanctioned execution.
Friends and family members of the victim are invited to come watch the killing of the offender. If you read the testimonies of family members who have witnessed the carrying out of a death sentence, many acknowledge that it didn’t bring them peace. And it definitely doesn’t bring their loved one back to life.