Our country, and our world, is in an unprecedented state of shutdown. Over 16 million Americans have lost their jobs, and it would not be surprising if that number continued to rise. Our educators are working extremely hard to transition to remote teaching, finding new ways to engage and teach their students. As a society, we are bending over backwards to “flatten the curve” and save lives. And which lives? Predominantly those of one segment of the population: the elderly. Yes, people of all ages are vulnerable and will succumb to this virus, but by and large, we have shut down our country to protect older folks, those who are most at risk.
One of the beautiful things about the way our society is fighting for the lives of the elderly is how non-utilitarian it is. These are retired people, folks in nursing homes, ones who have little to contribute economically. And yet we recognize how valuable their lives are.
I was talking with my sister this morning, and she prompted me to look up some of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s words on this topic. At various points, he has said:
“Job One has to be [to] save lives. That has to be the priority.”
“My mother is not expendable. Your mother is not expendable.”
“We are not willing to sacrifice 1-2% of New Yorkers.
That’s not who we are.
We will fight to save every life we can.
I am not giving up.”
“And if everything we do saves just one life, I’ll be happy.”-Governor Andrew Cuomo
Governor Cuomo, I wholeheartedly agree with you and many other leaders who have made similar statements. We need to fight to save lives, and indeed, right now, we are. My main concern right now is the contradiction between our valuation of the two most vulnerable subsets of our population: the elderly and the unborn.
As of this writing, according to New York Magazine, there have been 9,385 confirmed deaths in New York State from Covid-19. So far, there are 115,286 confirmed Covid-19-related deaths worldwide. By comparison, in 2017, 105,380 abortions were performed in New York State, and 862,000 across the United States, according to the Guttmacher Institute. That is a staggering loss of life. And many of us barely bat an eye hearing about it, because we are so accustomed to abortion as a part of our societal fabric.
Here’s my point: we as a society are willing to make huge sacrifices to protect the elderly, but we are not willing to do the same for an even more vulnerable population. As my mom pointed out, there is some self-interest at play in our current situation, as in, “yes, let’s help the elderly not get sick, but I sure don’t want it either!” But all the same, there is something striking in the way we value one life over another.
It makes me think of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in some ways (another hugely complicated issue, I realize). How many Japanese civilians are worth killing to save our American soldiers?
Or alternately of the Three-Fifths compromise. Exactly how much is this dark-skinned human being worth? “Ehhhh, three-fifths of a light-skinned human being.”
How much are the lives of the elderly population worth? Worth enough to shut down the country.
How much are the lives of the unborn worth? “Ehhhh, what’s the going rate on abortions? “
My plea to my fellow citizens is to stare this contradiction right in the face. Allow this cognitive dissonance to buzz in your mind’s ear.
And then act.
What I am calling for is not something easy. If we start to place the same value on the lives of our youngest people that we place on the lives of our oldest, it will demand enormous sacrifice on the part of many, many people. In probably the best article I have ever read on this topic (seriously, go read it!), Ashley Gorman writes: “If we protest for a baby’s life, it will cost us ours.”
And she is absolutely right. The day the abortion clinic shuts down, there HAD BETTER be a line out the door of the adoption agency full of families saying “we want your children if you can’t take care of them!” There HAD BETTER be a lot of people bending over backwards to help young mothers, and not just by pointing them to social services, but by welcoming them into our homes and lives. And Church, we HAD BETTER be leading this effort, because it lines up exactly with what we say we believe.
Of course, this is easier said than done. Perhaps we can remember Governor Cuomo’s words: “We will fight to save every life we can.” Or maybe the words of that Middle Eastern carpenter who said, “No one has greater love than this—that one lays down his life for his friends.” Right now, we are all laying down significant parts of our lives for our elderly friends. May we be willing to do the same for our very youngest friends-to-be.