End-of-life propaganda

What kind of creep would go after a guy suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease? 


Well, I’m not really “going after” Dudley Clendinen, who wrote a story in The New York Times that was circulated in many newspapers about his reaction to his ALS diagnosis. Rather, I’m going after how his story is used. 

Clendinen, 66, wrote about his terrible disease, for which there is no cure. ALS is a miserable killer. 

Deciding to avoid the medical costs of treatment and the “drag” of death from ALS, Clendinen has made arrangements to kill himself when it is “time to be gone.” That is, “when I can’t tie my bowtie, tell a funny story, walk my dog, talk with [his daughter], kiss someone special, or tap out lines like this ...” 

It’s all very poetic, coming from a former editorial writer for The New York Times. But his conclusions are harrowing. And will be used for harrowing purposes. There are a lot of people out there who believe the only way health care costs can be contained is to persuade the elderly sick to die, and die fast. And Clendinen makes perfect fodder in that argument. 

Take New York Times columnist David Brooks. Ruminating after reading Clendinen’s piece, he defined life for all of us: “Life is not just breathing and existing as a self-enclosed skin bag. It’s doing the activities with others you were put on this earth to do.” 

And who are the “self-enclosed skin bags”? He doesn’t name names but raises the amount of money spent on Alzheimer’s victims and “ill patients in the last phases of life.” 

The issue is money: “Obviously we are never going to cut off Alzheimer’s patients and leave them out on a hillside. We are never coercively going to give up on the old and the ailing. But it is hard to see us reducing health care inflation seriously unless people and their families are willing to do what Clendinen is doing — confront death and their obligations to the living.” 

What Clendinen is doing is killing himself. When he can no longer walk his dog. Brooks may dismiss the idea of putting Alzheimer’s patients on a hillside, but what exactly is he saying that their families and society do to get them out of the picture and save on public health care costs? 

The cop-out of caring for the old and ill is to avoid the word “coercively. ” If we don’t coerce them into killing themselves — but convince them that to do so is unselfish service to family and community — then it’s not such a bad social policy. 

We don’t need “death panels” to do the unpleasant business of refusing medical treatment for the elderly ill or the victims of dementia. All we will need is a lot of propaganda about the duty of the sick and elderly to die before they allegedly become a financial burden on society. All we will need is to make it socially taboo for them to stick around once they can no longer tell a funny story. 

It’s heartbreaking that Dudley Clendinen has ALS, and he has every moral right to reject worthless extraordinary means to extend his life. 

But no matter the illness, it is terribly dangerous to write words that will be used to argue in the public arena that the sick and the elderly are dying skin bags that need to get on with it. And it is most frightening to have your flawed decision to kill yourself used as a subtle bit of coercion on all the sick. 

Clendinen has made himself into an argument for a social policy that would create death panels of the mind and culture. Anyway, that’s how David Brooks used him. 

And that’s why I have to take issue with a guy who has Lou Gehrig’s disease. 

Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.