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Why Hospira Should Stop Supplying Prisons With Lethal Injection Drugs

Hospira (HSP), the company that makes the lethal injection Pentothal used in death row executions, says the restricted supply of the drug that has halted executions across the country is caused by supplier issues and has nothing to do with the company's distaste for the death penalty. But why shouldn't Hospira cut off prisons from their supply of Pentothal?

The company has every right not to sell the drug:

  • lethal injections are an off-label use;
  • doctors are generally banned from participating in executions (it's malpractice -- they're supposed to be helping, not killing, their patients);
  • and the market for Pentothal's other use as an anesthetic has all but dried up.
Currently, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Virginia, Arizona and California are unable to carry out executions because of a shortage of Pentothal, also known as sodium thiopental. Hospira has blamed the shortage on unspecified problems with its raw material suppliers. But the company also sent a letter to all states opposing the use of Pentothal in executions:
"Hospira provides these products because they improve or save lives and markets them solely for use as indicated on the product labeling," Kees Groenhout, clinical research and development vice president, said in a March 31 letter to Ohio, obtained by the AP. "As such, we do not support the use of any of our products in capital punishment procedures."
The company denies it's phasing out the drug because it isn't used much anymore outside prisons. This denial is puzzling: If the market for Pentothal is really over, why bother continuing to make it, especially when you also disapprove of the product's other commercial use, killing people?

Hospira just exited the market for another anesthetic, Propofol, when it became unprofitable, so it's not as if abandoning a product or a brand is unprecedented. And if Hospira did openly say it was discontinuing Pentothal, it could earn itself kudos from the medical community and burnish its brand as a company that helps people live, not die.

That strategy would put the states in the worst possible situation. State litigation and the U.S. Supreme Court has narrowed the range of legal execution methods to lethal injection in most states. Pentothal is one of the few methods left. If Hospira were to remove it from the table, it would create new litigation that would halt further executions while prisons worked to find legal alternatives. And that may be one more step toward ending a punishment that, from a medical and pharmaceutical point of view, is increasingly rare and probably cruel.

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Image by Wikimedia Commons, CC.
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