Geronticide: Killing the Elderly

Geronticide: Killing the Elderly

Geronticide: Killing the Elderly

Geronticide: Killing the Elderly


Drawing on a variety of historical, contemporary, anthropological and literary sources, this study considers the present day debates about the sanctity of elderly lives and the question of euthanasia.


In The Time Machine, H. G. Wells’ narrator remarks on the absence of an older generation in the new world. In the land of everlasting youth, the problem of ageing – if it is a problem – has been apparently resolved. A genre of utopian and dystopian writers raise often unanswered questions about the place of the elderly in future society. In the past, as in the present, that experience has often been grim.

This book is about, bluntly, the killing of old people. We will argue that all societies – so-called ‘primitive’, early modern, medieval, colonial, Victorian, pre-industrial, industrial and others – have regularly condoned the killing of older people. Procedures have varied. The elderly Inuit may have been cast aside on an ice floe after a ritual chant, but his experience was not that different from the pauper forced into the Victorian workhouse on a less-than-subsistence diet or the older female resident of a modern nursing home starved of life-maintaining medicine because of a rationing process that discriminates against the elderly.

The simple fact is that old age in itself has been one criterion for selecting people to die. As the philosopher Battin (1992) says:

Not all family life is harmonious, and underlying pathology can often be exacer
bated by the stresses of a family member’s terminal illness. … ‘All right, Granny,
it’s time to go’ is a message that we can imagine being conveyed in a variety of
ways, exhibiting an entire range from the faintest suggestion to outright coercion.

However, as we shall show, the picture is slightly more complicated in two ways. The elderly are not a homogeneous group. Typically, it has been the very old (the liminal) who have been subject to inveterate disposal. That is especially true if they were of marginal caste or social class – at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Occasionally, that decision-making (often sins of omission rather than of commission – though both can be intentional) is further qualified by factors of gender (elderly women have often been a particular target), of ethnicity (minority groups and stranger elderly have regularly suffered geronticide), and of disability.

In this book, we explore not the ‘voluntary’ act itself – for example, through the euthanasia ‘technology’ pioneered by such agencies as the Hemlock Society . . .

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