Dr. Jonathan Weisbuch, author of the original resolution, had asked the AMA to recommend to the National Governors' Association that all executions be halted until questions are answered regarding the availability of DNA evidence, the quality of legal representation and the effect on the judicial system when innocent defendants are executed.
"It is one of our tenets to do no harm. And if we are not working with the criminal justice system (to ensure high-quality evidence in capital cases) we are not doing the work that we should be doing," Weisbuch, public health director for Maricopa County, Ariz., told the AMA's 550-member House of Delegates on Tuesday.
The delegates voted in favor of an amended resolution asking the AMA to simply "support the availability and use of all appropriate medical forensic techniques in the criminal justice system."
Several physicians at the AMA's annual meeting in Chicago said the death penalty is a legal issue, not a medical one.
Calling for a moratorium "presumes that there isn't a single state in the nation that's doing the right thing," said Dr. Thomas Price, a physician from Roswell, Ga.
He said, for example, that "Texas has done the right thing" by postponing the execution of an inmate who may be exonerated by DNA evidence.
Dr. Steven Thorson, of Fort Collins, Colo., also told the delegates that he feared a temporary halt would lead to a permanent moratorium--something he said wasn't the AMA's business.
The discussion comes in the midst of a national debate over the death penalty, heightened by Illinois Gov. George Ryan's highly publicized moratorium earlier this year after medical evidence exonerated several death row inmates. The sponsors of the original resolution also noted a Chicago Tribune report earlier this week that questioned the reliability of evidence in dozens of Texas executions during Gov. George W. Bush's administration.
The original resolution, drafted by the American Association of Public Health Physicians, said "the possibility exists that in several states innocent individuals may be executed because medical technology will not be made available in time to prevent their death."
The AMA committee overseeing the matter noted that opponents who testified Monday believed that some issues in the original resolution, "including the quality of legal representation, fell beyond the realm of medical professionals and into the realm of law."
But Weisbuch said he considered Tuesday's vote a partial victory.
"I'm pleased with the fact that the AMA recognized...that there are people in this country that are being denied adequate services in a capital punishment environment," he said. "I was disappointed personally that the association was unwilling to take the next step."