Those of us who think about the fundamental violations of human dignity involved in American abortion law and culture are used to confronting difficult and even horrific realities. Death on a massive scale brought about in unspeakably violent ways.
One minor mercy in the midst of it all is that the death of the baby is most often fairly quick. There is a new horror upon us, however, a new fundamental violation of human dignity that also involves mass, horrific violence — but which brings death over torturous weeks and months.
Most of us are by now familiar with the massive number of nursing home residents who died during the pandemic. Though we’ll need better research to come out to get precise numbers (including numbers from New York — still being withheld — about how many such residents were infected in nursing homes and then died in the hospital), somewhere about 4 in 10 deaths from COVID appear to have come been residents of nursing homes and other long term care facilities.
In some nursing homes during the pandemic, residents have kept in soiled diapers till the skin peeled off, with bed sores down to the bone, and dying of starvation or thirst. This is a paradigmatic example of our violent, anti-life throwaway culture — one pro-lifers and Catholics everywhere must now mobilize to resist.
But thanks to recent reporting from the Associated Press, we have now confirmed what many have speculated all along: nursing homes residents are also dying in far greater numbers from causes other than COVID. Indeed, the AP reports that “for every two COVID-19 victims in long-term care, there is another who died prematurely of other causes. Those ‘excess deaths’ beyond the normal rate of fatalities in nursing homes could total more than 40,000 since March.”
Neglect has been a problem in care homes for many decades now, but there have been massive new problems of short staffing and isolation during the pandemic that these institutions have not been prepared to address. Nor has our broader culture acted to address them. We’ve known for many months that these facilities desperately needed staffing and other kinds of help, but the country failed to act. Now cases in nursing homes are surging to all time highs.
And, significantly, in homes where at least 30 percent of the residents had COVID, the death rate for “reasons besides the virus” doubled.
What might those reasons be? This from the AP speaks for itself: “Nursing home watchdogs are being flooded with reports of residents kept in soiled diapers so long their skin peeled off, left with bedsores that cut to the bone, and allowed to wither away in starvation or thirst. Beyond that, interviews with dozens of people across the country reveal swelling numbers of less clear-cut deaths that doctors believe have been fueled not by neglect but by a mental state plunged into despair by prolonged isolation ‘— listed on some death certificates as ‘failure to thrive’.”
This is a paradigmatic example of our violent, anti-life throwaway culture — one pro-lifers and Catholics everywhere must now mobilize to resist. And beyond the obvious issues in play, there are two very significant and traditional life issues worth highlighting.
Fifty percent of residents in these facilities have some kind of dementia. We already know from reporting from Politico that, just during the three months summer 2020, there were eleven thousand “excess deaths” of nursing home patients who had dementia.
My current research is focused on how contemporary secularized medicine has undermined the basis for fundamental human equality in ways that, if applied consistently, will necessarily leave out human beings with advanced dementia. I thought my book project would be predictive, but it is turning out to be descriptive.
So, a major part of the overall problem of excess deaths in nursing homes is apparently coming from the fact that, when push came to shove, residents with dementia were not seen as fundamentally equal to other kinds of human beings. It would be difficult to come up with a more central concern for the traditional pro-life movement.
The second central concern for pro-lifers is how these new revelations intersect with the cultural and legal battle of physician-assisted killing and euthanasia. It doesn’t take a genius to guess what the reactions of many people will be if they get sick, or get diagnosed with the early stages of dementia, and foresee a horrific life in an institution.
No one is more strongly opposed to physician-assisted killing than I am, but even I can see how someone might be drawn to support its legalization if they thought it would spare them or someone close to them this kind of fate. This is not merely informed speculation. Canada is already seeing people with disabilities, in no imminent danger of death, asking physicians to help them commit suicide.
What can the pro-life movement and the Catholic Church do?
We need to mobilize for better policies, to be sure. One of those policy goals has to be to support families who take care of their disabled and elderly loved ones at home.
But the thing pro-life activists do best is be present to people. Whatever disagreements different members of the movements might have about public policy (particularly around social support for women and families) anyone who knows anything about the pro-life movements knows that the activists are there for women and children in dramatic and sometimes shockingly selfless ways. And in far greater numbers that those who are activists for abortion rights.
The thing pro-life activists do best is be present to people. What a beautiful thing it would be if pro-lifers mobilized to be present to this throwaway population, just as we have mobilized to be present to vulnerable mothers and their prenatal children.
I’ve argued that a counterculture of encounter and hospitality is the antidote to throwaway culture. What a beautiful thing it would be if pro-lifers mobilized to be present to this throwaway population, just as we have mobilized to be present to vulnerable mothers and their prenatal children. What if, just as we’ve mobilized teams of volunteers (and even whole religious orders) to try to create a culture of encounter and hospitality for abortion, we did something similar to protect and care for our beloved elderly?
In a recent webinar I did for USC’s Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies, I suggested that this could be done with an intentionally intergenerational strategy that would benefit both the young and the elderly. If my own experience with college students is any guide, even before the pandemic young people were starved for authentic and embodied encounters with real people. Loneliness, depression, and anxiety were massive problems that have only been made worse by the pandemic.
Is it naïve optimism from an ivory tower professor to imagine a post-pandemic culture in which the pro-life movement and the broader Church mobilizes large numbers of young volunteers to step into the breach when it comes to meeting social and other needs of the elderly? And in a way which gives young people the excuse they need to step away from their Instagram and Snapchat feeds and have embodied interactions which are mutually life-giving?
Maybe it is. I suppose time will tell. But the structural problems with eldercare are such that something like this kind of mobilization may be more than beautiful. Given the massive and growing gap between the needs of our elderly and disabled and what the culture has decided to allocate, our mobilizing this way may become the only chance they’ve got.
Charlie Camosy is professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University and the author of Resisting Throwaway Culture.
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