Dr. Ezekiel J. Emanuel has just announced that he plans on dying at age 75 and implies that the rest of us should work toward achieving this too. His article is perhaps the single most outrageous and despicable screed written this entire year. One must also consider that this proposal is not being made by just any medical doctor. Dr. Emanuel, brother of Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, is a major advocate of universal health care and was a key advisor to the president on formulating the Affordable Care Act, or as we know it, Obamacare.
Indeed, a few years ago, Emanuel was accused by Betsy McCaughey and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, among others, of favoring euthanasia and death panels for individuals. Dr. Emanuel argued that in fact he is a well-known opponent of euthanasia, and that, as the details in his Wikipedia entry note, his talk about “rationing” medical treatment concerned only the “allocation of very scarce medical interventions such as organs and vaccines,” not preventing the elderly who want medical treatment for illnesses from getting what they need. Emanuel said he was angry that what he wrote was taken out of context: “I find it a little dispiriting, after a whole career’s worth of work dedicated to improving care for people at the end of life, that now I’m ‘advocating euthanasia panels.’”
There is a serious discussion about how much treatment should be given at the very end of life, especially if a terminally ill patient would be worse off as a result. But in his Atlantic article, Dr. Emanuel makes us revisit the charges made against him some years ago and reevaluate whether his critics were not so far off in their claims.
Here is his argument neatly summed up at the start of his lengthy essay:
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.
I am talking about how long I want to live and the kind and amount of health care I will consent to after 75. Americans seem to be obsessed with exercising, doing mental puzzles, consuming various juice and protein concoctions, sticking to strict diets, and popping vitamins and supplements, all in a valiant effort to cheat death and prolong life as long as possible. This has become so pervasive that it now defines a cultural type: what I call the American immortal.
If young Zeke wants to stop living at 75, that’s fine with me. But the arguments he lays out are not really meant to be just about himself. He argues that essentially, one should stop living after he or she has led a complete life. According to him, by 75, people have passed their creative peaks. It is all downhill from there. They are being kept alive by the likes of flu and pneumonia shots, vaccines, antibiotics, and better medical care, which keeps them going instead of allowing nature to take its course. That is why, he says at one point, he does not believe people should get flu shots in their 60s: because each one taken by an elderly person is depriving a younger person who needs it to live a full life from having access to it. (He does not explain why both cannot get them.)