Reference Work Entry

Handbook of Global Bioethics

pp 619-639



  • Dónal P. O’MathúnaAffiliated withSchool of Nursing and Human Sciences, Dublin City University Email author 


Disasters lead to extensive damage and human suffering. In the midst of the chaos, nothing seems to matter beyond saving lives and relieving pain. Such a reaction arises from an ethical commitment to help others and prevent harm. But beyond that general principle, ethical dilemmas permeate every step of the way. Exactly how should international agencies help? Who is in the best position to provide help? How is immediate relief balanced with sustainable development? To address such questions, good-quality evidence is needed, pointing to the need for disaster research. As with any research involving human subjects, disaster research raises ethical issues. How is research balanced with aid? How is the vulnerability of disaster survivors taken into account? How should consent be addressed? What about conflicts of interest?

This chapter examines disasters and the range of ethical issues they raise. These will be examined in three areas: disaster responses, disaster research, and healthcare during disasters. Even natural disasters are rarely devoid of some contributory cause from humans. Understanding the human contributions to any disaster and its devastation is important to highlight ethical responsibilities and how to prepare better for future disasters. In raising funds for disaster relief, ethical issues arise regarding the appropriate use of images. Disaster research can provide evidence to guide disaster responses. The ethics of disaster research is examined in terms of beneficence, vulnerability, informed consent, humanitarian misconception, cultural issues, and ethical review. The chapter ends with a consideration of the ethical challenges addressing healthcare needs during disasters.