by Will Lloyd
Wednesday, 11
November 2020

Joe Biden’s coronavirus adviser: life should end at 75

Is the President-elect two years past his sell-by date?
by Will Lloyd
Dr Ezekiel J. Emanuel, 63 and counting

Six years ago, a distinguished American oncologist published an essay in The Atlantic. In ‘Why I Hope to Die at 75’ Dr Ezekiel J. Emanuel argued that for most people “creativity, originality and productivity are pretty much gone” by 75.

Accordingly, society as a whole would be improved if nature took “its course swiftly and promptly”. Medicine has extended life spans, but it has done little to make life worth living in old age, Emanuel argued at the time:

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.
- Dr Ezekiel J. Emanuel

On Monday, Dr Emanuel was one of 10 advisory board members appointed to Joe Biden’s coronavirus task force. This is potentially awkward for Biden — not least because at 77 he is a few months beyond the age Dr Emanuel believes we cease to be much use to anyone. Previously, Emanuel was a special advisor in the Obama White House, and prominent in shaping the policy for Obamacare between 2009-11. The battle over that legislation included claims by Sarah Palin that federal health insurance would lead to “death panels” — bodies of bureaucrats who would decide who was worthy of medical attention, and who would be left without it.

This was a fantasy, of course. Emanuel does not support assisted suicide either, though it’s legal in nine US jurisdictions, and has been in Oregon since 1997. Still, now that he is going to be involved in directing healthcare policy that seeks to protect millions of elderly from Covid-19, Emanuel’s appointment looks a bit like a political own-goal. Donald Trump’s press secretary Kayleigh McEnany tweeted a screenshot of the piece, as did influential Arkansas senator Tom Cotton. If you search for “death panel” on Twitter you’ll see that the term is back in vogue.

Perhaps more than any other Western nation, in the United States the pandemic has become a culture war battleground. Arguments about masks and lockdowns have been as polarised as conflicts over abortions and gun laws, splitting right down party lines. There has been a 17 point drop since 2019 in the number of Americans who believe that vaccines are good for their health, and that of their families.

During the campaign, Biden repeatedly told Americans to prepare for a “very dark winter”. The appointment of Dr Emanuel probably isn’t the best way to start it.

Join the discussion

  • Emanuel’s argument is based on some subjective redefining on what it means to be alive. He thinks reaching the point where caretaking is necessary, it is somehow a less valued form of life.

    What a completely narcissistic and selfish way to see the world. For a lot of people, they find purpose and meaning in taking care of the vulnerable. In a lot of ways, this is the whole point of a family structure to begin with. We protect the vulnerable on their “way into life”, then we raise them, invest into their lives, they become adults and hopefully amass some wealth, and then they turn around and protect their vulnerable parents on their “way out”.

    But to Emanuel, any level of caretaking is just a burden, and apparently a shot to his fragile ego. And he would be more than happy to rob his own family the joy that comes with taking care of our old as they wind down their life.

    I get it man, you want to go out on your own terms. We all do. No one wants to be found dead with their pants down after having a heart attack at 84 while sitting on the toilet.

    But this is just pure cowardly narcissism, punctuated by the fact that he wants to have his own memorial while he’s still alive.

  • I don’t see the controversy at all. The quality of life for most people after becoming 75 decreases a lot. The average age of death in the west is around 80 or so. It’s a question of managing expectations. People seem to believe that death is something unnatural while in fact it is exactly the other way around. That is what makes this whole corona-crisis an absurdity because the average age of death is more or less the same as the average age of corona-death.

  • That’s quite the interpretation of what Emanuel said. If he wishes to die at 75, then he can make that happen. And somehow, he ignores the irony this piece highlights – that the guy he’s advising is already past the expiration date. If you’re a burden to society at 75+, you have no business trying to run a country.

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