A story out of Belgium vividly illustrates how our elderly are becoming personae non gratae in a society increasingly obsessed with avoiding difficulty. Francis and Anne are healthy and happily married octogenarians. Not wanting to live without each other, they plan to die together on their sixty-fourth anniversary. Rather than engaging suicide prevention, their children procured a doctor to euthanize them.
Digging more deeply into the Daily Mail story, we can glean that there’s more to this case than the couple’s fear of widowhood:
John Paul said the double euthanasia of his parents was the ‘best solution’. ‘If one of them should die, who would remain would be so sad and totally dependent on us,’ he said. ‘It would be impossible for us to come here every day, take care of our father or our mother.’
Imagine knowing your children want you dead to put them out of their misery—because that is essentially what John Paul is saying.
Francis and Ann won’t be the first joint geriatric euthanasia killings in Belgium. There have also been joint deaths at Switzerland’s notorious suicide clinics. Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, doctors now euthanize elderly people who are “tired of life.”
It isn’t just the metastasizing death cultures of Western Europe that pose a lethal threat to the elderly. Here, the assisted suicide proselytizing organization Compassion and Choices teaches elderly people how to kill themselves through self-starvation, known as “voluntary stop eating and drinking” (VSED) in euthanasia advocacy parlance. There is even advocacy in bioethics that would force nursing homes to withhold spoon feeding from Alzheimer’s patients who left written instructions to be so killed—even if they willingly eat.
Lethal ageism could easily insinuate itself into coercive public policy as a means of saving resources. That is why I was so disturbed when Ezekiel Emanuel, one of country’s most influential bioethicists and a prime architect of Obamacare, declared that he wants to die at seventy-five and will refuse all life-extending medical interventions at that age—even simple disease preventatives such as flu shots.
Why did the fifty-seven-year-old draw the line at seventy-five? At that age, our usefulness has peaked, and life is as good as over:
But here is a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.
Emanuel’s ageist attitudes are shared by many within the medical community and political leadership. Remember when President Obama argued that an elderly woman should have received pain pills instead of a pacemaker?
Writing in the Hastings Center Report in 1997, bioethicist John Hardwig was even more explicitly lethal in his ageism, actually advocating that our venerable ones have a “duty to die” when they become dependent.
A duty to die is more likely when continuing to live will impose significant burdens—emotional burdens, extensive caregiving, destruction of life plans, and yes, financial hardship—on your family and loved ones. This is the fundamental insight underlying a duty to die.
A duty to die becomes greater as you grow older. . . . To have reached the age of say, seventy-five or eighty without being ready to die is itself a moral failing, the sign of a life out of touch with life’s basic realities.
The antidote for lethal ageism is to assure our elderly at every opportunity that caring for them is an honor not a burden—a great gift not just a moral duty. Sure, it can be tiring, but so what? We’ve all known people who cared for their elderly parents because it was the right thing to do, only to discover later that they were the prime beneficiaries. And we’ve known some who didn’t step up to the plate and later regretted their failure bitterly.