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Why saying no to the death penalty is the ethical thing to do

The harrowing circumstances of Australians Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, the death row inmates facing the very real possibility of execution by firing squad in Indonesia for drug trafficking, has forced many of us to consider our own morals and beliefs regarding the death penalty.

To one extent or another, the views of our individual members would reflect those of the broader Australian community, ranging from outright opposition under any circumstance, to acceptance and even support for the death penalty for certain crimes. There are many factors that influence our individual opinions, including our upbringing, religious and cultural influences, and personal experiences. Our individual views are neither right nor wrong, they are simply our personal opinions, based on our own individual beliefs and values.

While each and every one of us has a personal view on the death penalty, as doctors we are ethically obliged to provide care to those who commit crimes, as well as those who are victims of crime. It is our ethic to treat everyone equally with respect and dignity, without judgement.

It is with this ethic in mind that the AMA recently adopted a formal position opposing the death penalty. While we have a longstanding policy that doctors should not be involved in capital punishment in any way, and that to do so is in direct conflict with a doctor’s duty to serve humanity, we did not have a formal position on the broader, social issue of the death penalty itself (irrespective of the involvement of medical practitioners).  

The AMA advocates that, as members of the medical profession, we cannot condone the use of capital punishment.

With the support of the Federal Council, AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler earlier this year wrote to the Indonesian Ambassador in Australia, Nadjib Riphat Kesoema, requesting clemency for the two Australians on the grounds that respect for human life is a fundamental tenet of the medical profession.

While acknowledging the terrible toll that illicit drugs inflict on society, the President stated the AMA’s opposition to the death penalty for any person, regardless of how heinous the crime – including involvement in the pernicious illegal drug trade.  

The AMA has taken great care to advocate our position in a way that demonstrates humility and respect for Indonesian sovereignty. We consulted with the Foreign Minister’s Office to ensure that our advocacy would not interfere with the Australian Government’s diplomatic efforts on behalf of Mr Sukumaran and Mr Chan.

On their advice, A/Professor Owler wrote to the Ambassador in Canberra rather than directly to Indonesian President Joko Widodo, which may have been considered disrespectful. The AMA President also wrote to the President of the Indonesian Medical Association, Dr Zaenal Abidin, to inform him of the AMA’s position.

We have gone to great lengths to consider different cultural mores. We understand the scale of Indonesia’s drug problem. We see the misery of this disgusting trade on our own streets each day. We see how it destroys the lives of so many people – the addicts themselves, their families, and the other victims of their crimes. Those involved in this destructive trade deserve punishment.

However, we sincerely hope that the efforts of the Australian Government, and the collective advocacy of organisations and individuals around the world, will persuade the Indonesian President to grant clemency to Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, and commute their death penalties to a lesser sentence.

We thank those members and others who have asked the AMA to speak out on this important ethical issue.