Euthanasia in the Big Easy

It turns out that many of the most horrific stories we heard about New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina weren’t true. But there’s one nightmarish story that may turn out to be an exception—a story that should cause anyone who plans on growing old to lose some sleep. Following Katrina, stories began to circulate about the goings on at Memorial Hospital. These stories depicted an overwhelmed and increasingly desperate staff repeatedly discussing the unthinkable: “euthanizing patients they thought might not survive the ordeal.” Fran Butler, a nurse manager at Memorial, told CNN that her “nurses wanted to know what was the plan.” Were they supposed to put people out of their misery? Dr. Bryant King has told authorities about similar discussions among doctors, adding that he thinks that the matter went beyond mere talk. These allegations have prompted Louisiana’s Attorney General to open an investigation into what happened at Memorial Hospital. Were the sick euthanized? While I hope the allegations prove false, I know that the issues they raise are not going away. That’s because of three undeniable facts: First, our population is aging, and aging populations spend more of their resources on health care than younger ones do. Second, the cost of health care is rising faster than almost any other sector of our economy. And by “cost,” I mean more than dollars and cents. Among the resources required to care for an aging population are the time and efforts of younger people. You can’t care for the sick and elderly simply by throwing money at the problem, at least not if “quality of life” means anything. The third fact is that in our post-Christian, secular culture, respect for the sanctity of life, especially at its end, has been weakened. The most obvious example, of course, is physician-assisted suicide, but an even greater threat is what’s called “Futile-Care Theory.” As bioethics writer Wesley Smith describes it, this theory gives doctors and hospitals—not patients and their families—“the right to declare which of us have lives worth living and therefore worth treating medically, and which of us do not.” It’s a very short leap from what Smith calls “one of the hottest and most-dangerous topics in contemporary bioethics” to what is alleged to have happened in New Orleans. And why not take lives at their end? If we’re not created in the image of God, in a secular culture, we judge human life by its value to us—what it contributes—not its inherent dignity. These factors are why the President’s Council on Bioethics just issued an important report titled Taking Care: Ethical Caregiving in Our Aging Society. The report expresses concern about “the human and moral shape that a mass geriatric society will take.” We already live in a society where millions of families “face the difficult task of caring for frail and incapacitated elders.” As the numbers increase, an unqualified respect for the sanctity of human life may come to be seen as a “luxury” we can no longer afford. Fortunately, we are not there, yet. There’s still time to make the case that it’s not a “luxury” but, instead, the basis of any decent society. We must do it now, and not wait until the problem gets out of hand, so that what happened in the Big Easy, the unthinkable, does not become a matter of stated policy.


Chuck Colson


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