Over the last several decades, those in the pro-life community have fought tooth and nail for the rights of unborn children. We are convicted of their inherent dignity and value. The energy and passion that swells in the pro-life movement suggests that many of us would do whatever it takes to prevent a single abortion. Indeed, many have. Billions of dollars have been donated to pro-life groups; million have marched.
The question remains: if we value the lives of the unborn so highly, why do so many in the pro-life movement today appear to value the lives of the elderly so little? It’s hard to put too fine a point on this, but the rhetoric in response to the COVID-19 pandemic coming from some corners of the internet is shockingly cynical and utilitarian. Some apparently wouldn’t mind putting the elderly at risk in order to avoid an economic recession or worse. “They are old and sick anyway,” they seem to say.
Articles like this one from a purportedly conservative publication, National Review, are astonishing. The author, Robert VerBruggen, attempts to provide a dollar-based cost-benefit analysis of different courses of action. This line best captures the tone: “Obviously it’s a lot sadder when a toddler dies in a car accident than when an elderly person with terminal cancer does. So we might want to measure the benefits of stopping COVID in terms of ‘quality-adjusted life years,’ especially because the disease seems to fall heavily on the elderly and hardly at all on children.”
Frighteningly, the author assumes that our feelings about one’s death is a valid indicator about the value of one’s life. As if this wasn’t enough, the author goes on to explicitly assign a lower dollar value to the lives of the elderly! This is the cold-hearted calculation of some wannabe fascist apparatchik, not a conservative who values life, family, and community. I wish this was an isolated case, but the Lt. Governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, essentially said the same thing on cable television: that the lives of the elderly are an acceptable exchange for the health of an economy that provides for their grandchildren.
The recent First Things articles written by R.R. Reno make similar assertions, but, unlike the above, are wrapped in the language of philosophy and theology. There are many disturbing passages in these articles, but these sentences are perhaps the most revealing of a disordered ideology: “A number of my friends disagree with me. They support the current measures, insisting that Christians must defend life. But the pro-life cause concerns the battle against killing, not an ill-conceived crusade against human finitude and the dolorous reality of death.”
Similar to VerBruggen and Lt. Gov. Patrick, Reno finds ways to devalue the lives of the elderly, this time by sidestepping core Catholic beliefs about the inherent dignity of all human life–undermining the basis for the pro-life movement–and reducing the entire cause to nothing but being “against killing.” As his argument implies, since the virus is doing the killing and not us, we aren’t violating the Fifth Commandment, even if we intentionally raise the risk that more people will die from the disease. Other things are more important than life, Reno argues.
In contrast to these utilitarian arguments stands the richness and beauty of Catholic teaching, which always and everywhere affirms the inherent dignity of all life, from conception until natural death. Today, in addition to the unborn, the elderly have a special need for our advocacy on their behalf, in our words and actions. Specifically, we have a grave responsibility to take steps to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, which disproportionately impacts elderly and vulnerable populations, by staying home and avoiding physical contact with others.
Pope Francis has written passionately about the elderly over the course of his papacy. It is hard to choose just one or two quotes, but I encourage you to read these two audiences and Christus Vivit, particularly Chapter 6, where he writes about what the elderly have to offer younger people:
What can we elderly persons give to the young? … “We can teach those young people, sometimes so focused on themselves, that there is more joy in giving than in receiving, and that love is not only shown in words, but also in actions” (197)
Quoting Benedict in a Wednesday Audience, Francis said, “The quality of a society, I mean of a civilization, is also judged by how it treats elderly people and by the place it gives them in community life.” Indeed, Francis laments how the elderly are often tossed aside. He said,
Yet a culture of profit insists on casting off the old like a “weight”. Not only do they not produce — this culture thinks — but they are a burden: in short, what is the outcome of thinking like this? They are thrown away. It’s brutal to see how the elderly are thrown away, it is a brutal thing, it is a sin! No one dares to say it openly, but it’s done! There is something vile in this adherence to the throw-away culture. But we are accustomed to throwing people away. We want to remove our growing fear of weakness and vulnerability; but by doing so we increase in the elderly the anxiety of being poorly tolerated and neglected.
Finally, Francis powerfully wrote in Evangelii Gaudium,
Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?
These next few weeks and months will be a testament to the “quality” of our country, one way or the other, and the essential question will be, “How have we treated our elderly?” Have we taken steps to mitigate the imminent threat to their health and well-being? Have we reached out to them and volunteered our time to help them? Have we honored them, in our political and economic priorities? Political sentiment is building behind the idea that our economy is more important than the health of the elderly, and the next several days will be a critical time to advocate for them and speak out for them. Out of respect for the inherent dignity of the elderly, the pro-life community has an obligation, particularly during this crisis, to reject cynical, utilitarian arguments about the value of a human life and come to their defense.