Public Health

Commentary: Six Years Later and Katrina Still Engenders Bioethical Debate

During August 2005, the Gulf Coast experienced the most expensive natural disaster in history. The remarkable devastation would be painfully remembered simply as Hurricane Katrina. Amidst the hue and cry of lives lost, levees that failed—and alleged FEMA incompetence—Hurricane Katrina’s darkest moments, especially for medicine, continue to reverberate. It must never be forgotten that after the initial shock from the powerful storm had dissipated, forty-five corpses were retrieved from one New Orleans hospital under suspicious circumstances.[1] A subsequent article reporting the events was trenchant enough to receive a Pulitzer Prize.[2] At the time, it was alleged that some of these forty-five individuals were injected with sedatives such as morphine to relieve either their suffering or to deliberately hasten their deaths.[3] Therein lays the rub of the principle of double effect. The Louisiana Attorney General and prominent forensic scientists labeled what happened homicide.[4] The local coroner later testified in agreement with this claim and provided evidence of the drug levels to demonstrate what should have been a lethal cause and effect. Also critical to the ensuing debate, several of these persons whose death may have been hastened did not have a Do Not Resuscitate order. There was no evidence that any of the individuals consented to assisted suicide. One case study may provide insight.[5]

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