Medical science has enabled many men and women to live longer, healthier lives. But there’s a catch. For one thing, it means more people live long enough to develop age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and prostate cancer.
The elderly become a drain on medical resources. This trend is exacerbated by smaller families, due to abortion and contraception, leaving fewer members of the younger generation to financially support or physically care for greater members of the older generation.
This poses a conundrum for secular humanism. Medical science holds out the promise of extended longevity. But what medicine gives with one hand it takes back with the other, as doctors are increasingly pressured to euthanize the elderly–or disabled, or depressed. To take a recent story:
The pressure will become greater if medical science finds a cure for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, &c. Our society is tugging in two different directions. We can make you live longer, but we may cut your life short.
Roger Ebert reflects this tension. He’s an atheist who’s battled crippling side effects of thyroid cancer. That no doubt colors his perspective on certain euthanasia-friendly films. For him, this gets deeply personal:
At the University of Illinois, my alma mater, there are more students in wheelchairs than at any other university in the country (the campus is completely lacking in hills, a great convenience), and they were in all my classes; when I was editor of the student paper, our photo editor was in a chair. The most outspoken student radical on campus could walk only with an exoskeleton of braces and crutches -- it would have been easier in a chair, but not for him. Among other paraplegics I have known, a lifelong friend recently retired as a sportscaster; a young woman was largely responsible for getting the Americans with Disabilities Act passed, and I once joined a dozen wheelchair athletes on a teaching tour of South Africa. A high school classmate was paralyzed in his senior year; a few years ago I got news of his romance and marriage. Some of these people have had children, and have raised them competently, lovingly, and well. I remember the remarkable Heather Rose, whose condition limited her to the use of one finger, which she used to tap on a voice synthesizer. She wrote and starred in "Dance Me to My Song," and flew from Australia to attend my first Overlooked Film Festival. Only recently I got an e-mail from a fellow film critic I have been in communication with for years; discussing this movie, he revealed to me that he is a quadriplegic.
These people are all functioning usefully, and it is clear they have happy and productive days, no doubt interrupted sometimes by pain, doubt and despair. To be sure, most of them are not quads. But whatever their reality, they deal with it. Ramon, on the other hand, refuses to be fitted with a breath-controlled wheelchair because he finds it a parody of the freedom he once had.