Scapegoating of the Elderly
“I would point out that the right to care and treatment for all must always be prioritized, so that the weakest, particularly the elderly and the sick, are never discarded. Indeed, life is a right, not death, which must be welcomed, not administered. And this ethical principle applies to everyone, not just Christians or believers.” ─ Pope Francis, Feb. 9, 2022 General Audience
A few days ago, at the Catholic University of Argentina in Buenos Aires, representatives from the three “Abrahamic” religions—i.e., Christianity, Judaism and Islam—signed a joint statement about the status of the elderly in the modern world. The statement was signed in the presence of Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the president of the Pontifical Academy for Life.
In the opening lines, the statement warns about a general “aging of the world’s population” that is the result of “the decrease in the birth rate and the increase in life expectancy.” As the authors of the statement note, this trend “poses challenges in all sectors of society, from labor and finance, demand for goods and services, social and health protection, to urban structure and intergenerational family ties.”
However, the overarching theme of the statement is that one of the groups that is most threatened by these trends is the elderly. With more and more elderly being supported by fewer and fewer working-age individuals, and with the elderly living longer than ever before, there is a risk that the prevailing paradigm will treat old age “as a negation and superfluous stage of life.”
Although the statement does not specifically name euthanasia or assisted suicide, it makes unmistakable reference to this looming (and, in many cases, already present) threat when it references the solutions pursued in “the darkest stages of the 20th century.” No category of humans, warn the signatories, should be “treated as disposable or dispensable under a criterion of productive obsolescence and irrelevance to society.”
World Wakes Up
This statement is only the latest piece of evidence that the world is waking up to the reality of the demographic crisis facing the world, and the threats it poses to certain groups of people.
The sudden, widespread anxiety about low birth rates and aging populations marks a sudden about-face after decades of alarmism about “overpopulation.” This alarmism, famously encapsulated in books like Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, often lead public authorities to implement drastic and often profoundly inhumane measures to control the human population.
Now, however, many countries are realizing that in their effort to stave off one supposed disaster (a misinformed position), they have in fact created a far worse one. In recent weeks, for instance, the news has been filled with alarming reports about the dramatic “slowdown” in China’s economy.
For decades, many people had predicted that China would become the world’s largest economy. Now, however, it seems as if that economy has hit a wall. While the causes for China’s precarious economic situation are myriad (the extended Covid lockdowns certainly didn’t help), many economists are noting that the country’s rock bottom fertility, a consequence of the country’s brutally-enforced one child policy, is a major cause.
One social scientist recently told the New York Times that China’s population woes are probably far worse than the country is admitting. As the Times notes, one of Yi Fuxian’s books, predicting a serious demographic crisis, was banned in China. More recently, the Chinese government dismissed Yi’s claims that the country’s population had started to decline in 2018. The government instead officially issued projections stating that the population would not begin to decline until 2031.
However, the government has now admitted that, in fact, the population has begun to decline, and that the fertility rate is settling at a startling 1.0 children born per woman—staggeringly far below the replacement rate, which is 2.1 births per woman. The fatal problem with such a low birth rate, and the economic crisis that it is now producing, is that the economic crisis in turn makes it less likely that couples will welcome more children, due to fears that they can’t afford it.
This is what is called a “doom loop”— i.e., a self-reinforcing cycle, in which one bad thing reinforces another, without any obvious way out. China’s low birth rate is contributing to an economic crisis, which is further worsening the birth rate. A similar doom loop is manifesting in many countries, including Japan, South Korea, and Italy.
Elders: From Respected to the Problem
The recent statement by the representatives of the Abrahamic religions is a much-needed attempt to get out ahead of one of the most sinister consequences of this demographic nightmare—i.e., the scapegoating of the elderly.
In the very recent past, most married couples would welcome more—often, significantly more—than two children. One practical result is that when they grew elderly, they would have a number of younger, healthier children to care for them, and provide them with a dignified old age.
However, with many couples now welcoming one, and sometimes no children, what they are finding is that when the time comes when they are most in need of assistance, there is no one to care for them. While in the past those without children might have relied upon the government to provide generous pensions, many governments are themselves being hit by the economic problems of a smaller working population, with the result that there is less money to spend on the elderly.
In the end, the result is that the elderly, rather than being—as they were in the past—a class of people who were viewed with respect, as repositories of social and family histories and wisdom, and who had earned their chance to rest, are in some cases being reduced to a “problem” to be solved.
In countries like Japan, which has one of the worst demographic situations in the world, a sinister shift is already underway: many young people are openly expressing a deep resentment towards the elderly, who are unable or unwilling to continue working, and yet who require significant resources.
And if there is anything that the 20th century has taught us, it is that when any group of people becomes viewed as a “problem,” there are always people who are willing to propose a “final solution” to this problem. More and more, we are hearing “philosophers” and “ethicists” proposing the idea that the elderly may have a “responsibility” to make for the exit, to “make room” for the young.
And thus, the trajectory of the culture of death becomes disturbingly clear. A fundamental anti-life mentality expressed through the widespread suppression of fertility, and the massacre of the vulnerable innocent at the beginning of life, at the very last turns its blood-thirsty attention on the vulnerable at the end of life.
Canada: A Warning to the World
This is what pro-life ethicists have always warned about euthanasia and assisted suicide.
These practices are always sold as promoting “dignified” death for the exceptional few who are suffering intolerable pain due to the advanced stages of fatal illnesses. However, what has always been clear to the Church, and to anyone capable of seeing beneath the propaganda, is that the temptation of death as a “solution” would quickly prove to be too much for many cash-strapped governments and health care systems in the throes of a demographic crisis.
In every country where euthanasia has been legalized, it has only been a matter of time until the critics have been proved correct. All the promises of “safeguards” that would supposedly ensure that euthanasia would be a “rare” event restricted to the most horrific cases have turned out to be meaningless.
In countries like Belgium and Netherlands, euthanasia and assisted suicide deaths have grown year after year, constituting a greater and greater proportion of all deaths. However, one country that seems to have quickly outstripped all others, as a cautionary tale of the way that granting a license to kill to doctors leads to appalling abuses targeting the vulnerable, and especially the elderly, is Canada.
Canada legalized euthanasia in 2016, supposedly only for rare cases of lethal illnesses. Since then, the government, with the help of the courts, has rapidly expanded “eligibility” for euthanasia. Right now, the government is fighting for the “right” for the mentally ill and minors to request doctors to kill them. It is appalling beyond words.
One result has been an astonishingly rapid increase in the number of euthanasia and assisted suicide deaths. In Quebec, the percentage of overall deaths that are from assisted suicide or euthanasia has already surpassed that of Belgium and Netherlands, where the practices have long been legal. In 2022, some 13,500 people were killed legally by doctors in Canada.
Even many of those who support assisted suicide and euthanasia, in theory, are appalled by the grisly stories emerging from Canada: a litany of horrors, in which the sick, the poor, the vulnerable and the elderly are being proactively offered euthanasia by a system that cannot be bothered to find an actual, humane solution to their problems.
A New Paradigm
But supporters of euthanasia and assisted suicide should not be surprised. Pro-life ethicists long ago recognized and warned about the inner logic of the culture of death, outlined above in this column. Death leads to death. When children are viewed as a threat to be eliminated, the logical progression is that the elderly will become viewed as a threat to be eliminated.
However, while it is true that our demographic problems create perverse incentives to dehumanize and scapegoat the elderly, there is nothing that says that any society must go down that road. With sufficient moral conviction and creativity, we can find ways to integrate the growing proportion of elderly into our society in ways that respect their immutable dignity, and benefit from their wisdom and experience.
As the recent statement notes, echoing a common phrase used by Pope Francis, “humanity must still demonstrate that it has overcome that ‘throwaway culture’, committing itself to change, through effective policies, its attitude and mentality where people, as well as goods and resources, are not treated as disposable or dispensable under a criterion of productive obsolescence and irrelevance to society.”
The statement denounces the “ageism that discriminates, excludes, infantilizes, violates and invisibilizes the elderly, who for centuries have been the guardians of the living history of a society, the bearers of traditions and values that have been transmitted from generation to generation.” Rather than permitting the dehumanization of the elderly simply because they cannot “produce” economically, the signatories urge we move towards a spirit of “inclusion, protection, and enhancement of the value of old age.”
They are right. We must, as a society, concertedly embrace the fundamental principle of the intrinsic dignity of the human person. We must, in full awareness of the challenges we are facing as a society, and the sacrifices that it may take to address them in an ethical way, explore solutions, now, to address the economic and social difficulties posed by an aging society.
Without a concerted effort to face the demographic tsunami that was self-imposed by short-sighted, inhumane policies and propaganda, we may well simply meet evil with additional evil, compounding our guilt, and once again scapegoating the most vulnerable. To face this challenge, it is critical that we renew our commitment to the fundamental principles of a Christian civilization of love. First and foremost, of which is the intrinsic dignity of the human person from conception to natural death.
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Father Shenan J. Boquet was ordained in 1993 and is a priest of the Houma-Thibodaux Roman Catholic Diocese in Louisiana, his home state, where he served before joining HLI as its President in August 2011. Father Boquet earned a BA from Saint Joseph Seminary College, a Master of Divinity (MDiv) from Notre Dame Seminary Graduate School of Theology, a Certification Program in Health Care Ethics from the National Catholic Bioethics Center, and a Master of Science in Bioethics (MSBe) from the University of Mary in Bismarck. In 2018, Father Boquet was awarded an honorary visiting professorship by the Benedict XVI Catholic University in Trujillo, Peru. He is available for interviews and bookings on behalf of HLI by emailing email@example.com.