Illustration by Muriel Gordon.

The death penalty, a hot-button issue to say the least, has been prominently featured within the news circuits. Some may remember Joey Bien-Kahn’s feature that City on a Hill Press ran last quarter, entitled “Killing Them Softly,” about the recent controversy of the drug sodium thiopental. The drug, normally used as a rapid-acting general anesthetic, is also administered in large doses as a key component of the lethal injection cocktail. California’s remaining supply of sodium thiopental has expired, and Hospira Inc., the only company within the United States to manufacture the drug, has decided to stop selling it. Hospira spokesperson Dan Rosenberg said in Bien-Kahn’s feature, “The drug is used for improving life …We never condoned its use for capital punishment.”

As a result, some states have begun to consider drastic and inhumane efforts to continue carrying out capital punishment. Importing sodium thiopental is extremely restricted under federal law, and it doesn’t help that earlier this month Keyem, an India-based pharmaceutical company that had supplied Nebraska and South Dakota with the drug, decided to discontinue selling it for lethal injection purposes.

The company said on its website, “In view of the sensitivity involved with sale of our Thiopental Sodium to various Jails/Prisons in USA and as alleged to be used for the purpose of Lethal Injection, we voluntarily declare that we as Indian Pharma Dealer who cherish the Ethos of Hinduism (A believer even in non-livings as the creation of God) refrain ourselves in selling this drug where the purpose is purely for Lethal Injection and its misuse.”

Texas has quickly reacted by trying to institute pentobarbital for use in the case of death row inmate Cleve Foster, despite the fact that the drug is used predominantly in the euthanizing of animals. The drug is heavily regulated — the dosage is determined by the weight of the animal, only a licensed veterinarian can administer it and even the light in the room is regulated at the time of injection.

Pentobarbital isn’t intended to be used for human executions and has never been used in conjunction with the other drugs used in lethal injections.

The Supreme Court stayed Foster’s execution, due greatly to the questions surrounding the use of pentobarbital.

This entire situation should really force Americans to re-examine the entire concept of the death penalty — its use, its legitimacy and its ethical implications. How does the death penalty act as a form of justice? Is it effective? Are we truly able to carry out that justice in a humane and decent manner, respecting the standard that we set up for ourselves?

It should be obvious that pentobarbital and sodium thiopental should not be used for lethal injections, if only because that is not what they were intended to be used for. Can we really trust that a drug intended and created to euthanize animals to react the same way in humans? This brings up a whole different concern of what it means to create a drug to help kill people “humanely” — how does one even run trials to prove that?

There’s no easy answer to this problem. Yet, if it has thus far been difficult to create a death penalty process that both science and society can agree is humane and not cruel or unusual, is that not some indication of how inherently cruel, unusual and possibly inhumane the practice of taking a life is?