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.”