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Malachi O'Doherty

Sorry Ruth Dudley Edwards, but I can't agree that the elderly are superfluous and must give up life for young people

Malachi O'Doherty


The assumption that an older person's life is in some way expendable is unacceptable, writes Malachi O'Doherty

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The new Northern Ireland Nightingale wards are designed to treat coronavirus sufferers at Belfast City Hospital.

The new Northern Ireland Nightingale wards are designed to treat coronavirus sufferers at Belfast City Hospital.

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

The new Northern Ireland Nightingale wards are designed to treat coronavirus sufferers at Belfast City Hospital.

I'd rather not die, if you don't mind. My colleague Ruth Dudley Edwards said in a recent column that she "like many other old people" is pleased that the coronavirus "seems to endanger the old rather than the young". It also seems to prefer killing men.

I personally don't take any satisfaction out of being in greater danger on account of my age, or gender.

Certainly, there are young people in my extended family whose lives I would, if necessary, cherish over my own, but there are also many feckless, drab and unimaginative young people that I see about me whose lives I would only be willing to pay a much lower tariff to save.

Ruth says that, if she is taken into hospital with the virus and needs a ventilator, she will "be requesting medics to pass them to younger people".

And since, in such circumstances, she might not actually be conscious, she has already told her intimates that she does not wish to be resuscitated.

Ruth's volunteering to die isn't hedged round with as many qualifications as I would impose in my own case.

If I was in an advanced stage of dementia, a heart attack might be a mercy.

If I had a stroke that denied me the prospect of mobility and conversation, then I might prefer that it be left to complete the job. Though I don't know.

A life in an easy chair in a nursing home doesn't seem like much of a life, but it might be better than nothing. Who can tell?

Ruth seems to be saying, at the age of 75, that if she ever needs resuscitation, she doesn't want it.

This despite the fact that such resuscitation might restore all her faculties.

I would fight for her right to have the extended life that medical care might give her. Indeed, she has that right already.

No doctor can legally determine that a young person is more entitled to a ventilator than she is. She alone has made that determination.

In my view, that is a foolish choice on her part.

It is the waiving of a right that has been fought for, to allow equality before the law for all people of all ages and abilities.

The virus discriminates; the law may not and Ruth, in suggesting that such discrimination has some common sense, or decency to it, is undermining that law and setting a sorry example for other older people, who might be tempted to think that their lives are expendable in a greater good.

The lieutenant governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, said he would rather die than damage the US economy. He told Fox News: "My message: let's get back to work, let's get back to living, let's be smart about it, and those of us who are 70-plus, we'll take care of ourselves."

Critics on Twitter were quick to point out that he is a lot better able to take care of himself than others are, since he has health insurance, though that doesn't actually guarantee your survival.

What was pernicious about this was that, like Ruth, he presumed to be speaking for others. "I just think there are lots of grandparents out there in this country like me."

This is signalling to other older people that it is selfish to want to go on living when you could make life easier for others by dying.

"That doesn't make me noble, or brave, or anything like that."

No, he thinks it makes him an ordinary American pensioner, who doesn't want to be any trouble.

It actually makes him a pest. He is guilt-tripping those who are entitled to want to live. I have heard this type of argument before.

Some years ago, I was at a debate on euthanasia in the Unitarian church in Elmwood Avenue in Belfast. One of the speakers was the magnificent Mary Warnock, then aged 85.

The point was made from the floor that legalising euthanasia would create a possible slippery slope on which older people's lives would be cheapened. It would then be easier to apply some moral pressure on them to vacate the back bedroom.

Mary Warnock said that she thought this argument overlooked the likelihood that some older people would prefer to bow out and not be a burden on their children.

Giving up a life in such a way, that freed up a younger family to live more comfortably, might be thought by some a good and noble sacrifice.

That's not an exact quote, but it is the gist of what she said. I have just Googled her and see that she died last year at the age of 93.

Certainly, if someone wants to die so that their children will be better off, then that might be a generous thing to do, but it would probably contribute more to the future comfort of the children if they didn't know that mum or dad had popped off for their sake.

I don't see how the law could accommodate such a sacrifice anyway. Currently, it would prosecute the children as accessories to suicide, if not actual murder. Their defence - that she wanted to go because then we could take in a lodger - would not go down well with most judges.

I suppose Mary Warnock was envisaging a system by which an older person of sound mind could volunteer to die, making a witnessed statement.

The underlying presumption in all these cases is that an older person's life is rightly more expendable, whatever the law currently says about equality.

The older people have lived already, done the best they are likely to do, spawned what offspring they're going to spawn and should be content to get out of the way and not be such a nuisance.

Well, I'm inclined to agree with euthanasia being legalised for people who have no prospect of peace, or joy, in their lives because of illness.

However I would never subscribe to a view that older people are superfluous and they should accept that for the sake of the young, or for the economy.

It would have suited Ruth and Dan Patrick better to argue for an economy that provides enough ventilators for all.

There is enough blame to go round for that shortage before pensioners need sacrifice themselves.

And do you think for one minute that I would be a martyr myself for Boris Johnson's failure to plan for a pandemic?

I would rather be remembered as someone with more self-respect.

Sorry, Ruth, you're on your own - I hope.

Belfast Telegraph