The sole U.S. manufacturer of a key lethal injection drug said Friday it is ending production because of death-penalty opposition overseas — a move that could delay executions across the United States.
Over the past several months, a growing shortage of the drug, sodium thiopental, has forced some states to put executions on hold. And the problem is likely to get worse with the announcement from Hospira Inc. of Lake Forest, Ill.
Hospira said it decided in recent months to switch manufacturing from its North Carolina plant to a more modern Hospira factory in Liscate, Italy. But Italian authorities demanded a guarantee the drug would not be used to put inmates to death — an assurance the company said it was not willing to give.
"We cannot take the risk that we will be held liable by the Italian authorities if the product is diverted for use in capital punishment," Hospira spokesman Dan Rosenberg said.
Italian Health Ministry officials offered no comments Friday.
Hospira has long deplored the drug's use in executions but said it regretted having to stop production, because sodium thiopental has legitimate medical purposes as an anesthetic used in hospitals.
Of the 35 states that employ lethal injection, 34 use sodium thiopental. Oklahoma, which switched to pentobarbital, an anesthetic commonly used to euthanize cats and dogs, has conducted two executions with that drug. The 34 states use sodium thiopental as part of a three-drug combination that sedates and paralyzes the inmate and stops the heart.
Florida is among the states that use sodium thiopental. Florida Department of Corrections spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said in a statement, "like other states, Florida uses this drug and this will impact Florida. While no executions are pending here, we are exploring other options."
Hospira continues to make two other drugs used in executions — pancuronium bromide, which paralyzes, and potassium chloride, which stop the heart.
Hospira is the only manufacturer approved by the Food and Drug Administration to make sodium thiopental. There are other, similar sedatives on the market, but substituting one drug for another would require new laws or lengthy administrative processes in some states, and could also lead to lawsuits from death row.
Similarly, switching to another manufacturer could invite lawsuits from inmates demanding proof that the drug will not cause pain in violation of their constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment.