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Why Nobody Stopped Katrina Mercy Killing Is Unclear

The evidence ultimately may show that the accused - who have proclaimed their innocence - may be no different than battlefield medics who administered excessive amounts of morphine to dying comrades they thought could not be saved or transported to safety, University of New Orleans criminologist Peter Scharf said. Photo courtesy AFP
by Allen Johnson
New Orleans, Louisiana (AFP) Jul 20, 2006
Perhaps the most disturbing fact to emerge from the investigation into mercy killings at a New Orleans hospital was how many people knew what was going on.

As exhausted doctors and nurses prepared to evacuate patients in the chaos following Hurricane Katrina last September, at least four hospital administrators knew of plans to give lethal injections to patients deemed too sick to survive, court documents released Tuesday showed.

"Any physician (or administrators) that were aware of this absolutely had an obligation to intervene," said David Magnus, director of Stanford University's Center for Biomedical Ethics.

"This is something you just can't do."

Magnus said it is the responsibility of doctors to provide pain medication that will ease a patient's suffering, even if that medication may hasten death. But he said there is a "bright line" between easing pain and intentionally ending a patient's life.

Intentions are also important when deciding what kind of criminal charges to impose, University of New Orleans criminologist Peter Scharf told AFP.

And no one should rush to judgment.

"Is this a criminal act or is this an act of justice and concern for the dignity of the patient?" Scharf said of the Memorial Medical Center case. "The ethical issue of the Memorial case is how do you know if people are acting out of conscience or out of self-interest?"

There are issues and times throughout history when "respect for life obligates someone to go against the law" and "when disobedience to law is a duty," the professor said.

The evidence ultimately may show that the accused - who have proclaimed their innocence - may be no different than battlefield medics who administered excessive amounts of morphine to dying comrades they thought could not be saved or transported to safety, Scharf said.

It is important to judge the case in the proper context, a number of local health care professionals said.

The doctor and two nurses accused of administering the lethal doses were operating in a "Doomsday Crisis" climate amid reports of snipers shooting at medical evacuation helicopters and "frequent reports of the local and federal governments allowing citizens to die on the street without food or water," said Lorrie Metzler, a New Orleans area physician and senior medical consultant.

They were also suffering from extreme heat, sleep deprivation and other stress-related conditions, she added.

Jeffery Rouse, the deputy coroner of Orleans Parish who testified before a Senate subcommittee last week on the medical and psychiatric response after Katrina, declined to comment specifically on the Memorial case.

However, Rouse, a former emergency room physician, described dire conditions facing medical providers in the flooded city after the storm.

"Volunteer doctors were being turned away by FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) while we were screaming for assistance," he said. "Scientologists were in New Orleans providing massages before any organized federal medical help arrived in the city."

When armed federal troops finally arrived a week after the storm, "no one thought to bring medical supplies."

But the attorney general, whose office investigated 13 nursing homes and five hospitals throughout the region, was quick to point out he found credible evidence of mercy killings at only one.

"We're talking about people that pretended maybe they were God," Charles Foti said at a press conference announcing the charges on Tuesday.

"While I'm aware of the horrendous conditions that existed after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and left so many stranded without food, water, electricity and the basic necessities, I believe there is no excuse for intentionally killing another living human being."

Source: Agence France-Presse

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