Do Alzheimer's Patients Have a 'Duty to Die?'

"That still amounts to murder in this country, which is why I say that [Americans] must first debate and draw the boundaries of euthanasia before the Warnock proposal can be entertained here," he said.

Indeed, current laws would prohibit anything approaching a mandate to artificially hasten the death of those with dementia.

"As we search for ways to bring mounting health care costs under control, it is tempting to want to give preferences in access to expensive care to people who are highly functional, at least mentally," said Maxwell Mehlman, director of the Law-Medicine Center at Case Western Reserve University School of Law. "Oregon tried to do this when it adopted its Medicaid rationing program in the early 1990s, and was blocked by both the Bush and Clinton administrations, which interpreted the Americans with Disabilities Act to prohibit discriminating against persons with disabilities in allocating access to health care services."

Since this law is still on the books, Mehlman said, any government attempt to put Warnock's ideas into practice would be illegal.

An Old Idea

Mehlman added that Warnock is not the first to put forward the idea of limiting health care for the elderly. In 1987, American bioethicist Daniel Callahan expressed a somewhat similar idea in a book titled "Setting Limits."

"Callahan advocated that Medicare stop paying for the elderly after they reached a certain age," Mehlman said. "Although Callahan was not absolutely clear on this, it appeared that the cut-off age was to be around 82. ... Callahan was roundly criticized for his view, including by me."

And in at least one instance in recent history, Groner said, such Machiavellian principles have been put into practice.

"In the beginning of the era leading up to World War Two, Hitler decided that he would need more hospital beds," he said. "If you were an individual with dementia or a child with a deformity, you didn't stand a chance."

But Groner said he felt there are better ways to control health care spending.

"In terms of costs to society, I think smokers cost more," he said. "Alcohol abuse I think is pretty expensive, too. So why pick on elderly people with dementia?"

Lara Salahi contributed to this report.

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