After hurricane Katrina hit, in New Orleans’s Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans, without power or running water and temperatures topping 100 degrees inside, a doctor and two nurses are accused of giving lethal doses of drugs to four elderly patients they said might not survive an evacuation. The three were arrested this week. The Christian Science Monitor says ethicists are debating whether such mercy killing is justified when disaster strikes and a person seems destined to endure a torturous death.
The case has far-reaching implications for the way norms of ethical behavior may shift when circumstances governing public health are extreme. Many ethicists condemn mercy killing without permission; others say that in disaster conditions, physicians may deliver a lethal dose with patient consent. Military ethicist David Perry says the conditions at Memorial Medical may have resembled those in which a field medic “recognizes there’s no way this person is going to survive, and so it’s just a matter of how soon and with what sort of suffering or lack of suffering.”