Since 1997, execution in China has been increasingly performed by lethal injection. The current criteria for determination of death for execution by lethal injection (cessation of heartbeat, cessation of respiration, and dilated pupils) neither conform to current medical science nor to any standard of medical ethics. In practice, death is pronounced in China within tens of seconds after starting the lethal injection. At this stage, however, neither the common criteria for cardiopulmonary death (irreversible cessation of heartbeat and breathing) nor that of brain death (irreversible cessation of brain functions) have been met. To declare a still-living person dead is incompatible with human dignity, regardless of the processes following death pronouncement. This ethical concern is further aggravated if organs are procured from the prisoners. Analysis of postmortem blood thiopental level data from the United States indicates that thiopental, as used, may not provide sufficient surgical anesthesia. The dose of thiopental used in China is kept secret. It cannot be excluded that some of the organ explantation surgeries on prisoners subjected to lethal injection are performed under insufficient anesthesia in China. In such cases, the inmate may potentially experience asphyxiation and pain. Yet this can be easily overlooked by the medical professionals performing the explantation surgery because pancuronium prevents muscle responses to pain, resulting in an extremely inhumane situation. We call for an immediate revision of the death determination criteria in execution by lethal injection in China. Biological death must be ensured before death pronouncement, regardless of whether organ procurement is involved or not.
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