America is taking drastic measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, a virus that is primarily deadly to the elderly. Unemployment has skyrocketed as a result of the shutdowns and stay-at-home orders. Families are banned from visiting their loved ones in hospitals or nursing homes. Some schools have kept children out of the classroom for nearly a year already with no end in sight.
“Living too long is also a loss … a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived.” Dr. Ezekiel J. Emanuel
If an outside observer were to witness those measures, they might assume that the lives of senior citizens are priceless to us. America will stop at nothing to protect our elderly. The truth, however, is something quite different: America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic often seems to treat the lives of senior citizens as having inferior value.
On November 9, 2020, President-elect Joe Biden appointed Dr. Ezekiel J. Emanuel to his COVID-19 task force. Emanuel attracted controversy in 2014 by publishing an article titled Why I hope to die at 75″ in The Atlantic. He wrote, “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.” Though Dr. Emanuel claims to oppose euthanasia in the article, this idea he espouses—that the lives of the elderly are not worth living—is mirrored in U.S. authorities’ handling of COVID-19.
During the early days of the pandemic, health authorities and public officials gave lip service to equal (if not preferential) treatment for older patients. In March 2020, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said, “If you look at the people who wind up getting into serious difficulty and even dying, that’s very heavily weighted toward individuals with underlying conditions, particularly the elderly.”
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who had captured progressive hearts with his pandemic policy and “soothing Queens accent,” said at a March press conference that he refused to put the elderly at risk to boost the economy. “My mother is not expendable. And your mother is not expendable,” he added, for emphasis.
In practice, however, those sentiments did little to curb the callous disregard authorities have demonstrated for America’s elderly.
Instead of crafting policies to protect the seniors, health authorities have given a preferential focus on considerations like race, ethnicity, and disability. In November, a CDC report on how the government should prioritize distribution of COVID-19 vaccines argued the elderly should not be first in line for the COVID-19 vaccine because “racial and ethnic minority groups [are] under-represented among adults >65.” This has become a topic of heated debate among health experts: who should be prioritized for the vaccine, healthy and fit “essential workers,” or the elderly?
[O]ur policies failed to reflect the unique risks facing our elderly, as did societal attitudes more broadly.
And it’s not just health experts. On March 25th, the day after his press conference chiding the Trump administration for prioritizing our economic health over the life of his mother, Governor Cuomo issued a directive effectively ordering New York nursing homes to accept coronavirus-positive patients from hospitals. By July, nearly 6,500 people had died of the virus in nursing homes and other long-term facilities in the state. Cuomo even invited his 89-year-old mother to Thanksgiving dinner, although he rescinded the offer after public outrage.
We learned very early on in the pandemic our elderly were at highest risk for severe illness or death from COVID-19, and that it was a communicable disease that spreads rapidly. Still, our policies failed to reflect the unique risks facing our elderly, as did societal attitudes more broadly.
As conservative commentator Yoram Hazony pointed out, a lot of the hand wringing over the shutdowns had less to do with crafting effective policy and more to do with callous disregard on the part of the young and fit. “[Y]ou can’t honor your parents and the aged while you are sitting and calculating that, really, we can live with a wave of blown out hospitals because most of us younger people will get off with just minor flu symptoms,” he tweeted.
The reason that so many are so brain-dead on this subject is that in a liberal society, the idea of owing *honor* to our parents and grandparents is taught almost nowhere.
Most people don’t seem to even know what would be involved.
— Yoram Hazony (@yhazony) March 15, 2020
The coronavirus exposed a menacing trend in our society, one in which we devalue the lives of older generations. If we’re not careful, this trend could become cemented into law through health policies that incentivize senicide.
At the moment, physician-assisted suicide is legal in only nine American states and the District of Columbia. It is restricted to terminal patients with a prognosis of six months or less to live. But the U.S. authorities’ response to COVID-19 suggests a broader normalizing of euthanasia, if not in practice, most certainly in our culture.
Consider what is happening in the Netherlands. The Dutch situation illustrates what happens when the secular philosophy which considers the elderly as having less value is allowed to run wild.
LEARNING FROM THE DUTCH DOUBLE STANDARD ON DEATH FOR THE ELDERLY
The Netherlands was the first country in the world to legalize euthanasia, back in 2002. In the years that followed, they stripped away most remaining restrictions. Today, patients without terminal illnesses routinely receive euthanasia. This includes elderly patients with what the Dutch call “an accumulation of old-age complaints.” That basically means a senior citizen has the normal degenerative conditions that accompany aging. According to the Dutch, life is not worth living when you are no longer at peak physical health.
[H]er condition had become so advanced she no longer recognized her own face in the mirror, meaning she was unable to affirm she still wanted to die.
In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Dutch government imposed their strictest lockdown to date on December 15th. Over 8,000 Dutch citizens aged 70 or older have already died from the virus. The pandemic has not caused the Dutch to stop and reflect on the value of older lives, however. Quite the opposite; they are taking euthanasia even further.
The Dutch committee that oversees how euthanasia is practiced just promulgated new guidelines that make it much easier to kill elderly patients who suffer from advanced dementia. Up to now, it was legally difficult to administer euthanasia to this category of patient because they are usually unable to give consent to their death. That is no longer an impediment.
The updated guidelines are the direct result of the 2019 trial of Dr. Marinou Arends. She was prosecuted for negligence because she gave a lethal injection to a 74-year-old woman with Alzheimer’s. When she was still mentally competent, the patient had written a legal declaration requesting euthanasia. But her condition had become so advanced she no longer recognized her own face in the mirror, meaning she was unable to affirm she still wanted to die. Dr. Arends was not involved in the initial plans the patient had put forth—she did not discuss euthanasia with the patient when she was still mentally competent. They did not even meet until the patient was admitted to a care home because her condition was advanced. Yet Dr. Arends decided to proceed with a lethal injection anyway.
Even some Dutch people who initially supported euthanasia are horrified by these developments, but it is too late to turn back the clock given how liberal the laws around the practice had become by then.
When the details of Dr. Arends’ case became public in 2017, a group of 220 doctors published an open letter in a major Dutch newspaper expressing their opposition. “Giving a deadly injection to a patient with advanced dementia on the basis of their legal declaration? To someone who cannot confirm that they wish to die? No, we’re not going to do that. Our moral abhorrence at ending the life of a defenseless person is too great.” Many of the doctors who signed the letter do administer euthanasia at times, but this was too much even for them.
Despite the outcry, Dr. Arends was acquitted. A three-judge panel concluded in their ruling that “The court does not see why… the defendant should have consulted about the timing and manner in which the euthanasia would be carried out with this mentally incompetent, advanced dementia patient. A conversation like that would not only have been pointless, because the patient lacked understanding of the topic, but would have caused even greater agitation and restlessness.” The Dutch Supreme Court eventually reviewed Dr. Arends’ case and upheld the acquittal.
The oversight committee’s new guidelines rubber-stamp every aspect of Dr. Arends’ actions in a case that was initially controversial. This is the new standard for how euthanasia will be administered to advanced dementia patients.
The details of the case are horrifying. For instance, Dr. Arends started the euthanasia by secretly placing a sedative in the patient’s coffee. The patient appeared to fall asleep, but she awoke and began to struggle. Her husband and daughter restrained her on the bed so she could be put to death.
The new guidelines issued by the Dutch oversight committee explicitly authorize doctors to secretly place a sedative in the food or drink of a patient who might become unruly. Up to now, euthanasia for dementia patients has been rare in the Netherlands. But it is likely to increase in the wake of the new guidelines.
The overall trend in Dutch euthanasia demonstrates how quickly practices that were once controversial can gain public acceptance. In a few years, it may become standard practice for dementia patients to be put to death preemptively. And even that is unlikely to be the limit. Pro-euthanasia politicians are currently pushing legislation to allow euthanasia for anyone aged 75 or over who decides their life is “complete.” No medical criteria would be attached.
This is a haunting echo of Dr. Emanuel’s idea that life is no longer worth living after age 75.
Many Americans are horrified by the “woke medicine,” which prioritizes certain groups over the elderly who are actually at greatest risk of dying from COVID-19. That’s appropriate, but we should remember that there are vast implications beyond the current pandemic. Americans must not tolerate even a small step towards normalizing euthanasia. The Netherlands illustrates how fast a country can go down the slippery slope.