Ageism is real. It’s also ‘safe’, legal, and not-so-rare.

by George Brahm

The outrage over alleged ageism and ableism is a theme that has punctuated the various news articles and op-eds covering this global pandemic. In March, there was a significant outcry over #BoomerRemover, a hashtag mocking the fact that Baby Boomers constitute about 80% of COVID-19 fatalities. Then there was the uproar over a Telegraph columnist’s stating that, economically speaking, the coronavirus “might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents.” Over on Twitter, a rather insensitive tweet — one implying that reopening the economy was more important than protecting the ‘unproductive’ and ‘expensive to maintain’ older generation — earned its tweeter nine death threats.

The rotten assumption

There is something that does not (and ought not to) sit well with us when we hear a pandemic being described as ‘beneficial’ for ‘culling’ the older generation, or when we hear someone dismiss elderly dependents as ‘unproductive’ and ‘expensive to maintain’. Talk like this seems far from a nuanced take on the delicate balance between economic and health-related costs. But what is wrong with takes like these?

Such takes make us uneasy because of a rotten assumption underlying them, namely that people of a certain age, especially those lacking the ability to remain ‘productive’, aren’t as valuable as the general populace. Not only are they ‘ready to die’, but they should be willing to die as soon as possible, lest they deplete the valuable resources that would be better spent on the more productive younger generation. In other words, if you’ve crossed a certain age or fallen below a certain level of productivity, you are disposable for convenience’s sake.

Fortunately, most in our society don’t seem to be such cold-hearted conseqentialists, at least not by intuition, as demonstrated by the scale of outrage toward the foregoing ageist/ableist comments. We as a society recognize that all human lives, regardless of their attributes or abilities, are intrinsically valuable and worth protecting. As a consequence, we know that our old and disabled are not, to borrow a phrase from the horrific past, “lives unworthy of life.” Our nations and international organizations reflect our collective intuitions on this as well. For instance, my country of Canada has federal, provincial, and territorial human rights statutes that legally prohibit discrimination on the basis of age and ability, and both the WHO and the UN recognize ageism as an evil that needs to be ended.

Actually, scratch that. We as a society don’t seem to be such cold-hearted consequentialists to reach ageist/ableist conclusions about people of some ages, namely our elderly. While ageism against the elderly still exists, explicit ageism/ableism against the elderly is generally frowned upon, even if only to maintain an appearance of civility. On the other hand, a certain kind of ageism/ableism — one that isn’t even thought of as such — is practiced freely and without repercussions. In fact, our governments and international organizations not only allow for, but generously fund, openly encourage, and enthusiastically celebrate it; a kind of discriminatory act that also treats certain human beings as disposable for convenience’s sake.

Yes, I’m talking about elective abortion.

Two clarifications

Now, you might say to me, “Stop hijacking an exigent problem, namely the pandemic-related increase in ageism/ableism against the elderly, to promote your own anti-abortion agenda. Don’t you care about those who are dying due to this problem?” In response, I’d say two things.

First, I’d point out that the ‘anti-abortion agenda’ has everything to do with the issue under discussion, namely ageism/ableism. If discriminating against a fellow human being on the basis of age/ability for convenience’s sake is sufficient for ageism/ableism, being ‘pro-choice’ is being an ageist and an ableist to the maximal degree — you stand for the ‘choice’ to kill an innocent human being on the basis of his/her age (not yet being born), size (a ‘mere clump of cells’), lack of certain functions or abilities (a heartbeat, consciousness, the ability to feel pain, etc.), all in the name of convenience.

The pro-choicer may respond with, “But abortion is a whole different kettle of fish from wanting to do away with the elderly.” But on what basis is that claim true? “Because the unborn haven’t been born yet!” would be discrimination on the basis of age, and “Because, unlikely the elderly, the unborn cannot survive independently outside of the mother’s body” would be discrimination on the basis of ability. As a last resort, the pro-choicer might pick the science-denial route, denying the humanity of the unborn altogether. But this would only make them bigger ageists than the ageists they oppose; at least the latter sort tend not to deny the humanity of the elderly. Thus, one cannot escape the conclusion that elective abortion is the most ageist and ableist act of them all.

Second, I’d point out that unborn children aren’t exempt from pandemic-related ageism. CBS News reported in mid-April that the abortion clinics in the US were seeing an increased demand for services, often by women who were either under stress caused by the pandemic or afraid that the clinics might be deemed ‘non-essential’ and shut down. A clinic in Wichita performed 252 abortions in March 2020 compared to the 90 abortions in March 2019, while an Illinois Planned Parenthood clinic reported that 85% of women who scheduled abortions went through with the ‘procedure’, as opposed to the usual 50%. There has been much talk about popularizing ‘do-it-yourself’ abortions involving drugs that can be consumed without a medical practitioner’s supervision, and the WHO reminded nations to keep ‘safe abortion’ on their list of ‘essential health services’.

What the sanitized language of these reports masks is that, throughout this pandemic, more babies have been killed via elective abortion than on average, and as the CBS report shows, often using the pandemic itself as a reason.

In sum, as long as ageism/ableism against the unborn is considered ‘safe’, legal, and no-so-rare, the fight against elective abortion is just as exigent as fighting ageism/ableism against the elderly, especially in the age of the coronavirus.

Whither consistency?

A consistent anti-ageist/anti-ableist, then, will also defend the rights of his unborn brothers and sisters for the same reason that he cares about the elderly. But consistency on this issue is just as uncommon as it is key.

The WHO, for instance, promotes abortion as a “recognized human right” and as an essential healthcare service. Why is the very organization that condemns ageism as “the most socially normalized of any prejudice” also involved in actively promoting the most socially normalized form of ageism?

Or why do many on the political left — those who refuse to consider any nuanced argument for the gradual reopening of the economy citing the need to protect the sick and elderly from being infected — celebrate a woman’s ‘right’ to kill the most vulnerable member of her family in the name of convenience?

Why does my country of Canada, which has statutes in every province and territory to prevent age- and ability-based discrimination, not have a single law that regulates abortion, effectively allowing a mother to have her child killed until the point of birth?

Or why does a tweet implying that the economy matters more than the ‘unproductive’ older generation earn its author nine death threats, while organizations responsible for the massacre of millions of babies end up getting a blue check-mark and federal funding?

Questions such as these may never be answered. At least not until Judgment Day.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of other authors at Cogent Christianity.

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