by Sophie Trist
COVID-19 disproportionately affects the elderly and people with disabilities. A June NPR study revealed that in Pennsylvania, adults with intellectual disabilities living in care facilities died of COVID-19 at twice the rate of the state's other residents who contract the virus. A study conducted by a large consortium of private care providers found that disabled people living in New York's group homes are 5.34 times more likely than the general population to contract the virus and 2.5-3 times more likely to die from it. Eight out of ten COVID-19 fatalities in the United States occur among adults aged sixty-five or over. Knowing this, it is extremely concerning that one of the members of President-elect Joe Biden's COVID-19 task force, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, has publicly spread the eugenic idea that the value of life decreases with age and disability.
Ezekiel Emanuel is a medical doctor and chair of the University of Pennsylvania's Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy. In 2014, he published an essay in The Atlantic titled "Why I Hope To Die at 75." In it, Dr. Emanuel writes, "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... We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged, but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic." Later in the essay, he uses the phrase “years lost to disability.” In a March 12 op-ed for the New York Times, Dr. Emanuel wrote that during the pandemic, healthcare should be prioritized for those who could most benefit from it, namely the young and able-bodied.
Dr. Emanuel's argument rests on two ableist assumptions. First, he postulates that a disabled life is by default a deprived life. As a woman who has lived with a disability since birth, I know that to be a lie, and a very harmful one. The belief that disabled people have a lower quality of life than our able-bodied counterparts results in a healthcare system ingrained with anti-disability bias, which often manifests in substandard medical care for people with disabilities. Disability is not, as Dr. Emanuel describes it, a nightmare. While some conditions are certainly more limiting than others, many disabled people suffer more from society's assumptions about our competence and our worth than our actual disabilities.
Dr. Emanuel's second ableist assumption is that creativity and productivity are measures of human worth. He says that most activities people take up in their old age — hiking, pottery, reading — are play, not meaningful work, and that this is not conducive to a meaningful life. Leaving aside that the elderly have a right to some relaxation and leisure after decades in the workforce, the activities people do and/or are physically capable of engaging in do not alter the value of their lives. Even if people become less creative and productive as they get older — and my grandparents who still love to paint and cook and play golf would strongly disagree — they still possess the same infinite, inherent dignity they've had since their conception. The idea that you have to contribute to society for your life to be valued is both eugenicist and ableist. We have value by virtue of our humanity, not because of what we can do or produce.
The intersection of ageism and ableism is a dangerous place, a double whammy to some of the most neglected and marginalized people in our society. Though Dr. Emanuel has not proposed legalizing assisted suicide or euthanasia and says he supports everyone's healthcare choices, it is nonetheless troubling that a medical professional with these views has been appointed to a task force whose goal is to deal with a disease that primarily affects those he sees as living lesser lives. Every member of President-elect Biden's COVID-19 task force should have profound respect for the human dignity of those most at-risk from the virus. We are entering a critical phase of the pandemic, with the prospect of a winter spike and vaccine distribution within the next year. The health experts on this task force will be making life-or-death decisions for millions of Americans. As such, each one should understand the value of every human life. People with disabilities are tired of utilitarianism and consequentialism, philosophies that write us off as less worthy of life and healthcare. COVID-19 policy should be guided by a consistent ethic of life which values everyone equally, not eugenics or ableism.