Virginia's lawmakers are looking for a more humane way to kill prisoners convicted of capital crimes.

What they have heard so far are the usual arguments for and against capital punishment in considering a bill that would change the method of death in the state from electrocution to lethal injection. But what appears not to have been addressed is the fact that lethal injection requires the performance of a medical act -- an act that would violate every code of ethical medical practice.

Apparently, because the tools of a profession dedicated to healing will be used to accomplish death, the act is deemed more palatable and more professional than death by electrocution, hanging, firing squad or the gas chamber. The latter techniques have large margins for errors, and therefore a cleaner, neater and, yes, cheaper method is being sought.

But there is no proof that lethal injection is quick, efficient and painless. There are margins for error. Prisoners going to their deaths cannot be compared with patients about to undergo surgery. A prisoner would be strapped to a cart in a death chamber. One or more assistants would administer a continuous intravenous injection of a barbiturate and a chemical paralytic. Then a licensed medical doctor would be called in to pronounce the prisoner dead.

Previous drug history could alter the prisoner's response to the barbiturates. An inadequate dose could render the prisoner sensitive to pain but paralyzed and thus a witness to his or her own lingering asphyxiation (all the better, say the proponents).

Frankly, dogs in research labs are killed more humanely than the prescription in Senate Bill 92, because they at least receive doses of potassium sufficient to halt their cardiac activity.

Who will prescribe the drugs? Who will dispense them? Who will insert the intravenous line? If the prisoner's veins are constricted or collapsed from fear, cold or scarring from drug use, who will perform the minor surgical dissection necessary to reach the vein?

There are probably many health professionals who would gladly volunteer to put away people convicted of grisly, barbaric capital crimes and sentenced to death. But there are precedents that preclude their involvement, starting with the Hippocratic Oath, which charges physicians to, "above all, do no harm."

In 1980 the American Medical Associaton passed a resolution stating: "An individual's opinion on capital punishment is the personal moral decision of the individual. A physician as a member of a profession dedicated to preserving life when there is hope of doing so should not be a participant in a legally authorized execution. A physician may make a determination or certification of death as currently provided by law in any situation."

Likewise, the U.N. General Assembly, the World Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the medical societies of many states have formally declared that participation by doctors in executions is ethically unacceptable.

A 1981 Declaration on Doctors and the Death Penalty, formulated by the Medical Advisory Board of Amnesty International, went a step further by defining "participation" in capital punishment as, among other things, 1) determining mental and physical fitness for execution; 2) giving technical advice; 3) prescribing, preparing, administering and supervising doses of poison; and 4) making medical examinations during executions, so that an execution can continue if the prisoner is not yet dead.

The code of professional ethics for physicians is no different from that of physician's assistants, nurses, medics, pharmacists, laboratory technicians, or any other health-care provider trained to sustain and nurture life. Responsibility for the onerous task of executing prisoners cannot be shifted to health-care providers or their agents.

The penitentiary in Richmond will be shut down in 1990, necessitating relocation of the death chamber. This brings to mind events some years ago in North Carolina, which built a new prison in Raleigh without including a gas chamber in the design. Taxpayers spent nearly a quarter of a million dollars to convert a large walk-in refrigerator into a gas chamber, but alas the door leaked. Rather than fix the door, the state's fiscal team came up with a very appealing alternative: switch to the drugs and the equipment needed for lethal injection. North Carolina's legislature passed a lethal-injection bill, and it is now law in North Carolina. The North Carolina Medical Society and the North Carolina Academy of Physicians Assistants responded to this attempt to borrow medical expertise for executions by passing resolutions affirming that participation was a violation of medical ethics.

What kind of message does the Virginia legislature need? If the reason for wanting to inject killers, rather than electrocute them, is cost, say it is cost. Don't further pervert the act by trying to make it look therapeutic and making juries think a prisoner is just going to sleep. The act does not become more respectable, dignified or "humane" when the executioner uses state-of-the-art drugs and dons a white coat. -- Betsy Glennon is a physician's assistant in Virginia.