I received an email earlier this fall from someone very close to me – a psychiatrist, in her mid-60s, extremely intelligent, level-headed, non-reactionary, balanced, rational, and even. She tends to be somewhat progressive and mildly left-of-center on social issues. She sent me the link to Ezekiel Emanuel’s article in the Atlantic, “Why I Hope to Die at 75”, and she expressed significant concern.
I also tend to be somewhat progressive and left-of-center on social matters, reasonably level-headed, and non-reactionary. I found the article to be chilling.
I provide the brief background on our personalities and social-issue political leanings very deliberately. You need to know who is alarmed here, because my article is about to sound like it was written by a right-wing pundit with paranoid tendencies. It was not.
The piece in The Atlantic invokes fears far beyond those of death panels (which, as unacceptable as such a concept is, at least imply that there are some decisions to be made as far as who might merit the resources to have life-saving treatment). Dr. Emanuel’s article sets the stage for an expectation that people’s health is not something for which society should pay at all once they have reached a specified age (the specific age he chose is 75). No need for a death panel – you just need access to a person’s date of birth. He repeatedly uses the term, “American Immortal,” to imply that the idea of living healthily into old age is unrealistic, selfish, and greedy. He steps so far over the line with his stated “personal” preferences that the rest of us won’t be able to help but view the government as magnanimous when it generously allows Medicare to cover an antibiotic for a 76-year-old. I am afraid that Dr. Emanuel aims to be so outrageous in his arguments that a slight step back will be viewed as reasonable.
His points of persuasion reminded me of an Onion article from the late 1990s, when Dr. Kevorkian was frequently making headlines (“‘Vehicular Manslaughter Doctor’ Assists in 23rd Doctor-Assisted Vehicular Manslaughter”). The Onion writers are able to make anything funny – even a subject such as assisted suicide. Their satire in this particular article goes over the top in its farcical quotes depicting the suffering of people (for example, having to put on a special pair of glasses just to read) whom they are putting out of their misery by running over with a car. Dr. Emanuel’s depictions of the infirmities of those 75 and older are frequently as preposterous as those of The Onion (for example, one of his instances of something horrible to be enshrined in the memories of someone’s children or grandchildren is that person’s having to ask what someone else said – seriously, he implies that it’s better for a person not to have a memory of a grandparent who has some hearing loss). To be fair, Dr. Emanuel does not advocate direct homicide of those 75 and older, but he most certainly promotes shoving them out of the healthcare world onto a proverbial ice floe. And rather than being funny, the seriousness of his dissertation is simply horrifying.
His position is coldly utilitarian. He establishes any loss of functionality, productivity, or creativity as making the world smaller, of being no way to live or to be remembered. So he recommends that people die first, before losing any functionality, productivity, or creativity. I certainly would not want to be the in-any-way-less-than-perfect family member of this guy.
Dr. Emanuel puts forth that those 75 and older already have grandkids or even great-grandkids, and their continued existence overshadows the next generation down. I would put forth that a little therapy would go a long way towards resolving such psychological issues for someone who feels he is not able to achieve his rightful position as patriarch, and I would put forth that such therapy would be significantly preferable to killing off one’s parents.
Speaking of killing people off, it also shocked me that a physician would take the medically unsound (from a population/public health standpoint) stance that after a certain age he would refuse a flu vaccine. Is this so he can pass influenza along to infants, other elderly people, and those with weakened immune systems, so as to efficiently thin the herd and more quickly reduce their financial burden on society? There are creepy parallels to both The Giver and Children of the Corn.
On Ezekiel Emanuel’s website, there is a big quote screaming from the homepage (www.ezekielemanuel.com): “Zeke Emanuel is a force of nature. Author, ethicist, cook, medic, policymaker: he makes other over-achievers look lazy and inadequate. There are very few policy experts – in health care or any other field – with Zeke’s smarts, political antenna and persuasive powers.” This man is a member of the academic and political elite. One of the architects of the Affordable Care Act (ACA or “Obamacare”), he is in the healthcare policy inner circle. His words do not die on the page. People in positions of power are listening to this man.
He sets up a false choice of being a sickly immortal-wannabe or forgoing all medical care at a predetermined age. He puts forth what is either his own fear of not being at his peak or what is his politically calculated and expedient depiction of old age as a universal “succumbing to that slow constriction of activities and aspirations,” and thereby devalues any life that is not at his defined “peak.”
This man is an ethicist. His ethics are unnerving.
I asked my youngest son to read the article and tell me what he thought about it. He is still two months shy of turning 14. I’ll stipulate that he is a smart 13-year-old (he has two smart older brothers to learn from), but still – he’s 13. Here’s his response:
“There’s a lot of wrong stuff in that article. He makes it sound like getting old is bad and that life is less worth living when you’re old. He’s wrong. As you get older, you know more and more about life, so you live it more clearly. You’re wiser. So what if you slow down a little? And what’s wrong with listening to books and doing puzzles? He said it was bad for people to have memories of someone older or weaker. He sounds like he just wants to shove old people out on an ice floe.” So I wasn’t the only one who had that ice floe image. “And that thing he said about older people overshadowing younger ones – that’s just messed up.”
I then asked my son if it sounded like the author was just stating his own personal opinion. He answered, “Actually, it sounds like he’s trying to convince other people of what he’s saying under the guise of it’s being his own opinion.” Out of the mouths of babes. He’s a high school freshman and he wasn’t fooled.
My son asked who this author is. I told him that he’s a very influential doctor involved in healthcare policy. He replied, “that’s scary.”
Listen to the kid.
Because Ezekiel Emanuel is a member of the political elite, he will have the prerogative to “change his mind” and access healthcare when he’s older than 75. But when his words have been enacted into policy, the rest of us won’t have that option. This man’s words and his position of influence combine to seriously threaten our right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Do not let him force anyone to go gentle into that good night before they’re damn good and ready.
I cannot dismiss his article as the musings of a madman. His words appear to be the cold, calculated attempt at the social engineering required to decrease our country’s medical bills in a deeply disturbing manner. They are a set-up to “well, if Ezekiel Emanuel is totally healthy and strong and climbing mountains in his late 50’s and declares that he should be dead in less than 20 years and not using up money for healthcare, then who is someone with (arthritis, diabetes, any ailment of any kind) to demand care? Why should we give a new hip to a 70-year-old? Why should we treat cancer in someone in their 60s?” I hope every member of the AARP (and every one of their family members, and anyone who is in or someday plans to be in that demographic) reads Dr. Ezekiel’s article. And I hope they read mine.
Do not let this man have the last word. Do not let him smile sweetly and innocently as he sets the stage for a “there will be no coverage for chemotherapy (or dialysis, or ICU care, or hip-replacement surgery, or medications other than painkillers…) after age (whatever seems like a number likely not to cause a huge outcry)” policy enactment. Let the outcry be heard now. Let it be huge. Keep your eyes and ears open. Follow what policy makers and policy influencers are saying and know who your elected officials are listening to. Keep reading what Ezekiel Emanuel writes. Keep up the outcry as necessary and keep it loud. Do not underestimate the power and influence of his words, or the power and influence of your own.