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Council explains retention of guidance relating to prisoner executions

By Catherine Reilly - 05th Feb 2024

prisoner executions

The Medical Council’s ethics committee retained guidance stating doctors must not assist in prisoner executions, as some doctors in Ireland are also registered in countries where this is lawful.

The ninth edition of the Council’s guide to professional conduct and ethics for doctors came into effect in January.

In a section on ‘treatment of prisoners’, the eighth edition stated: “You must not participate in the practice of torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading procedures. You must not assist with executions.”

This wording has been retained in the new edition although is now presented as two separate paragraphs. 

The Medical Independent (MI) asked the Council about the rationale for retention of the line on prisoner executions as, separately, it removed a line (from the ‘end-of-life care’ section) stating that doctors must not take part in the deliberate killing of a patient. The execution of a prisoner – and the deliberate killing of a patient –  are all illegal in Ireland. The guide states that doctors have a duty to comply with laws and regulations pertaining to their practice.

A Council spokesperson told MI there had been “much discussion” on the ‘treatment of prisoners’ section when drafting the new guide. 

“The [ethics] committee discussed how the execution of a prisoner was not unlawful in all jurisdictions and that doctors registered here may also be registered in other countries where it is lawful. There was an agreed sentiment that it was important to retain this sentence for this reason. This led to an agreement to retain the wording relating to torture and execution.”

Other changes to this section included the deletion of a line describing prisoners as “particularly vulnerable patients”.  The guide continues to state (but with some minor changes of wording) that prisoners have the right to the same standard of care and treatment as any other patient. However, instead of stating they “have a right to be treated with courtesy and respect”, the new edition states they “must be treated with the same courtesy, dignity, and respect” as any other patient.

A sentence about the need to take suitable precautions if a doctor believes there is a risk to their personal safety, or the safety of others, has been deleted from this section. However, the guide has a separate section on situations where a patient may present a risk of harm to others.

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