Monday, May 2, 2016

On The Value of Human Life

When are we going to tell the truth, finally, that on some if not all levels, the value of human life very much has a price?

I say this because last Saturday, I discovered how much the life of an elderly gentleman was worth. For we had taken his wife to the opera, and then stopped by the nursing home to see her husband.

To say it was wrenching is to understate the tragedy badly. I have seen, this season at the opera, kingdoms lost, armies destroyed, loves relentlessly shattered. Nothing was as painful as seeing this older man, with no idea where he was, look at his wife. He began to sob, and did not stop for twenty minutes or so, until we diverted him and took him downstairs. He held her hand, he caressed her face, he told her she was the most beautiful woman in the world.

He also did not know her name.

It’s Alzheimer’s, or another dementia, and it could be much worse. The home is very good, the family has the resources to pay for excellent care, there appears to be ample and well-trained staff. But since the gentleman needs to be turned every hour, the cost of keeping him in the facility is, according to his wife, 7000 dollars monthly.

That’s 84,000 dollars yearly.

The gentleman has been in the home for only a few months; he is in his late 80’s, but otherwise in good physical condition. Given that his father died at age 100, the real question is how long and how expensive his final days will be. In addition, of course, there is his wife, who is his age and who will need care as well.

And so there is every likelihood that the family is facing a multimillion-dollar end-of-life bill. Let’s assume that they have it. My question, which may send you shuddering, is should they spend it?

My mother was quite clear about it: she hated every minute of every nursing home that she had recuperated in or visited. And for the most part, those facilities had been excellent. Still, no nursing home had ever been, and would ever be, her home. She sensibly felt that paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to be kept alive in a place she didn’t want to be was ridiculous. And in those moments when it seemed that there was no alternative but to keep my mother imprisoned in a nursing home, I suffered more despair than at any other moment in my life.

I know all the arguments: once you start on this path, it’s the slippery slope. OK—a life isn’t worth $84,000 annually; how much is it worth? $50,000? $25,000? And if a life is worth $84,000, is there then a figure at which it becomes too expensive to keep a person alive? If it cost $800,000 or eight million, would that be justified?

 Another argument: do we want the government to decide the worth of a human life?

But wait, don’t we? Because imagine if the man I had seen had been without resources—would he still have been in that very beautifully restored older building, with its murals and original oil paintings, and the ornate ceiling in the foyer? No, not by a long shot. He would have been in whatever facility was willing to accept what Medicare was willing to pay. Some bureaucrat, or rather a group of bureaucrats, has made the decision on the value of a human life.

Nor is it just in health care. We make lots of decisions about spending money on schools, on sports arenas, on bringing “democracy” to those nations who may or may not want them.

Everything, in short, has a price. And to pretend it doesn’t has a price, too. I am writing this two yards away from a homeless man, and perhaps three yards away from another homeless man. The first is sleeping in the back of the gift shop: the second is cruising the Internet. A classical guitarist, he lost everything except his computer and guitar in a fire on Thanksgiving Day.

Since I talk to the guitarist, I can tell you the price of homelessness, or at least of losing your home. Because the city had stepped in, and given him a hotel room for a week, and vouchers for two meals a day. Then, he was on his own.

Three lives: two people who have no home, and a third who has—perhaps—a home he doesn’t much want. We have decided that the two homeless men should be cast off, and that the older man should be allowed to die slowly in “luxury.” And do I want any government to redistribute the wealth, take away from the elderly man and give to the two homeless men? Absolutely not.

But do we really have to make that choice? If it is cheaper, in the long run, just to give the homeless homes, what besides our puritan heritage is keeping us from doing that?

And what obscenity could be worse than spending trillions on foreign wars, and having veterans of them on the streets, shell-shocked and homeless? Do we really not have the money to provide for basic needs?

Lastly, maybe it’s time to admit: if we were honest about putting a value on human life, maybe then we could be rational, and make sensible decisions. Instead, every time someone proposes an argument, the counterargument is always that “no price can be put on a human life.” Then we outsource drinking water and pollute an entire city. Or we send off more troops to Iraq.

The old man in the nursing home had been prudent all his life. The couple saved and saved, only hoping that they could pass something on to their children. I had spoken to the wife years ago about what my mother had done—stop drinking and eating—and how well it had worked for her. But the woman’s husband was a cultural Catholic, and wouldn’t have wanted to do anything to end his life.

I wonder…what would he say now?