An international group of 25 doctors demanded on Friday that U.S.-based Hospira take action to prevent its muscle relaxant drug pancuronium being used for executions in the United States.
There has been controversy about using prescription medicines for lethal injections in the last two years, and campaigners have succeeded in curbing supplies of some products, causing drug shortages that have slowed U.S. executions.
Hospira stopped making another drug, thiopental, last January, and Denmark’s Lundbeck later restricted distribution of pentobarbital, which U.S. states that carry out the death penalty switched to when thiopental was not available.
Hospira, however, has not curbed supplies of pancuronium — a decision consultant neurologist David Nicholl of Birmingham’s City Hospital, England, and colleagues said was out of line with its corporate commitment to be “an ethical global citizen.”
“It is time for Hospira to live up to those fine words, without affecting patients’ care, by putting in place a restricted distribution system for pancuronium,” they wrote in an open letter to The Lancet medical journal.
Nicholl and other doctors from Britain, Italy, Ireland, India, Australia and Saudi Arabia said there was a very real possibility that pancuronium, when used for executions, could cause extreme pain and suffering in a paralyzed prisoner.
Hospira, the sole supplier of the medicine, said it had regularly written to U.S. states making clear its opposition to use of its drugs in executions.
But Chief Executive Michael Ball said restricting distribution of pancuronium had to be considered carefully to avoid jeopardizing the health of patients who needed therapeutic access to the medicine, including inmates of prison hospitals.
“We continue to explore options around optimising distribution of all of our products,” Ball said in a response in The Lancet.
The United States executed far fewer people in 2010 and 2011 than in previous years, partly due to continuing problems with supplies of medicines used in lethal injections, according to the U.S. Death Penalty Information Center.
There were 43 executions in 13 U.S. states last year, down from 46 in 2010, which represented a 56 percent decline since 1999, the information centre reported on its website.
The European Union has taken tough line over drugs used in executions, announcing last month strengthened export controls on products that can be used to administer the death penalty.
The death penalty is banned in the European Union, and since 2008 the 27-member bloc has called for its abolition worldwide.