Penn’s Ezekiel Emanuel Wants to Die at 75
Penn’s Ezekiel Emanuel — known for being Rahm‘s brother and a key figure in the development of Obamacare — has a provocative piece in The Atlantic: “Why I Hope to Die at 75.”
It’s causing quite a stir.
Emanuel goes to great pains to say that he’s not trying to create a policy enforced on anybody else — but he does say he figures, essentially, that the fun and creative and useful part of his life will be more or less done when he’s 75. When he hits that age, he says, he’ll stop going to the doctor for checkups and let his body take its natural course — no life-extending medicine for him.
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.
I reject this aspiration. I think this manic desperation to endlessly extend life is misguided and potentially destructive. For many reasons, 75 is a pretty good age to aim to stop.
Living as long as possible has drawbacks we often won’t admit to ourselves. I will leave aside the very real and oppressive financial and caregiving burdens that many, if not most, adults in the so-called sandwich generation are now experiencing, caught between the care of children and parents. Our living too long places real emotional weights on our progeny.
It’s a long piece that deserves reading in its entirety.
Lots of conservatives who spent the health care debate warning about “death panels” see Emanuel’s piece as a sort of confirmation they were right — though, again, he’s against euthanasia. They argue for the value of elderly life.
But Dr. Emanuel says that life after 75 isn’t worth living anyway. Really? Ronald Regan was 76 when he stood before the Brandenburg Gate and said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Mahatma Gandhi was 77 when he saw his dream of Indian Independence come true. Nelson Mandela became President of South Africa at 76. And Benjamin Franklin attended the Constitutional Convention at age 81. What would the latter have said about Dr. Emanuel’s wisdom concerning the optimum age to die? As Franklin put it in his autobiography, “Life’s tragedy is that we get old too soon and wise too late.”
Emanuel rightly points out that one’s quality of life can diminish substantially with age. But so what? Although it is true that a person may reach a point when, given the diminished quality of his life, he no longer deems it worth living, the proper principle guiding such decisions—a principle Emanuel never states—is that the only person properly in a position to decide whether his life is worth living is the individual himself. A person’s life is his own; it does not belong to other individuals, to “society,” or to the government.
This is the quality of life ethic in action. It is an expression of the increasing bigotry we are witnessing against the aged. It is egotistical in that the only thing that matters is what Emmanuel wants without regard to the impact it might have on others. It is fearful of difficulty. It denies the equal dignity and importance of elderly human life. It embraces the idea of elderly people as burdens and disdains the value others may derive when caring for their elderly loved ones. It more than implies that living with limitations isn’t worth living.
Emanuel is free to think what he wants, of course. But the article is important because it expresses the value system upon which Obamacare and other health-care public policies will be predicated if the Ezekiel Emanuels get their way.
During an interview with ABC News, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel — citing the increased chance of Alzheimer’s disease among other quality of life factors — outlined why he wants to die at 75.
“I look at the data on disability, I look at the data on Alzheimer’s disease, I look at the data on loss of creativity. And 75 seems to be the right moment where the chance of disability, physical disability is low, you’re still not in the high Alzheimer’s risk of 30 percent or 50 percent and creativity has sort of come to an end,” Emanuel, chair of the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, told ABC’s Dr. Richard Besser on “This Week.”
Ezra Klein: You hold two positions here that seem to be in tension with each other. On the one hand, you want to die at age 75. On the other hand, you are loudly and publicly opposed to euthanasia. Why, if you think it is a good and valuable choice to die early, shouldn’t you have the legal right to make that happen?
Ezekiel Emanuel: If you look at people who want euthanasia it’s not who we think it is. It’s not people writhing in pain. It’s not people who can’t breathe because of emphysema. It’s people who are depressed and hopeless and don’t see meaning in life. I don’t think the right answer to that question is, “let’s give them some pills to knock them off.” They need meaning back in their life. They need therapy or medication. Euthanasia, I think the research shows, is much more like suicide than it is like a medical treatment.
My piece about wanting to die at 75 is really about what gives your life meaning, and the need to really think about that. Someone e-mailed me and said, well, my father is having a great time telling stories to his grandchildren about growing up in New York City. And that’s fantastic! But I remember my grandfather and what I remember most about him is his vigor and love of life. I remember his huge right hand, his reaching into a hot oven to pull out bagels, his running around with us. It would be horrible if my memories of my grandfather were just him shuffling around and telling us memories of his childhood in Chicago. And, similarly, what I want to leave my kids and my grandkids is a very certain kind of memory of me as vigorous, fun, someone they can travel with and horse around with.
Seems like the debate will keep raging.