Within the past month a close friend of many years passed on.
He had been an avid health advocate who exercised regularly, maintained his slim physique by eating sensibly, and avoided the unhealthful habits of smoking, drinking or drug use of any sort.
By rights he should have made it well past the 74 years he reached, but the stroke he suffered refused to play favorites.
During his last couple of weeks his three offspring argued over whether to remove the feeding and breathing tubes which kept him alive. The fracas reminded me of a similar controversy in 2005 concerning Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman whose feeding tube was removed by court order, and the nationwide obsession at the time over the sanctity of life.
Amid the controversy, and despite the differences of opinion expressed, often vehemently, three fundamental pronouncements are often accepted as unquestionable truths.
As is often the case, matters universally embraced are most suspect, just as the worst laws enacted are invariably those passed without opposition. Let me rectify each of these pronouncements.
Pronouncement I: The death of anyone is a tragedy.
Reality I: Actually, death is the final and inevitable consequence of birth. With America’s population now past three hundred million, and a typical 75-year lifespan comprising 27,375 days, approximately 11,000 persons die in this country each day. Rather than a multitude of tragedies, many of those deaths represent the natural culmination of life and come as a welcome relief to the decedent as well as to family and friends.
Pronouncement II: Prior written instructions of a person in a persistent vegetative state constitute the determining factor on whether to sustain life support.
Reality II: Regardless of dogma to the contrary, a human life reduced to perpetual bodily function, but devoid of mental awareness, ceases to be life in any meaningful form. The proper determining factor in providing life support should be its probable restorative outcome.
Pronouncement III: No monetary value can be placed on a human life.
Reality III: Throughout the history of mankind, the reverse has been true. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the military service, an organization dedicated to killing people.
It cost Caesar 75 cents to kill a man, the estimated expenditure per enemy dead for the support of the Roman armies. The war machine of Napoleon almost bankrupted France as the per capita cost of slaying rose substantially. With the Napoleonic wars’ cost at $6.25 billion and the slain totaling 2.1 million, the outlay came to just under $3,000 per man. The $180 billion expense of the First World War, resulting in 8,538,315 deaths, brought the cost of a life to a bit over $21,000.
Finally, with the expensive equipment and support required by today’s fighting forces, dollar cost per resultant death remains a vital factor in national policy. And you may be certain that in the civilian sector, a similar consideration is given regularly to the value of a human life.
Let’s now descend into the realm of how the system really works.
Modern medical technology is sufficiently sophisticated to sustain bodily functions for many years beyond that possible just a generation ago. There are, of course, practical considerations.
As two examples, both Rose Kennedy, mother of President John Kennedy, and Madame Chiang Kai-shek, widow of the one-time ruler of Taiwan, managed to live to their 106th birthdays.
Most likely, only the resources of the Kennedy fortune and the Taiwanese government made that possible. Of course, what’s available for persons of such prominence will not be shared with retired scullery maid Jane Doe. If extraordinary measures are required to prolong her life, they may not be forthcoming. I say may not rather than will not, for circumstances vary.
I’m aware of a woman of nonexistent means who’s currently sustained on life support. Essentially blind and paralyzed while attached to breathing and feeding tubes, this 87-year-old woman survives, thanks to a knowledgeable attorney who arranged the transfer of all family assets elsewhere so she’s supported on Medicaid.
However, if such abuses of the system become rampant, the practice will grind to a halt.
Despite the illusion government is a bottomless pocket, it’s not. There’s a limit, untested as yet, beyond which funds will not be available. Irrespective of rumors to the contrary, money is a finite substance.
This finally gets us to the question posed by this article’s title: What’s the value of a heartbeat?
I’ll offer a prediction. With each successive year medical technology will become more innovative and expensive; the aging American population will become less robust; and governmental resources will, despite innovative ways to increase taxes, dissipate due to entitlement payments. For this reason, permitting lives to terminate will become acceptable.
Perhaps Jack Kevorkian will return from the grave to resume his occupation.
A professional investor for nearly five decades, Al Jacobs holds a degree in civil engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a Real Estate Certificate from the University of California and a Certified Property Manager designation (CPM) from the Institute of Real Estate Management. His written works can be found in the book "Roadway to Prosperity: A Practical Guide to Wealth Accumulation" and also in several newspapers near his hometown of Monarch Beach in Orange County, Calif. Jacobs writes a weekly column for his website.
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