A lesson for health worriers.
One customarily speaks of life being precious – equally precious to everyone; but it is not so.
Taking the life of another human being is considered everywhere to be a heinous crime; but the punishment for infanticide in many countries is less than that for the murder of an adult. The implication is that the child’s life is worth less than that of an adult. Many would object vehemently to such an idea. It is not that way, or, at least, ought not to be that way, they assert. They understand that in times past people were killed just because they were mentally retarded. Deformed children were abandoned on a hillside to die. In some cultures the very old or very sick were left to starve to death, as if their lives were less valuable than that of the young and healthy. But these were barbarian practices contrary to every ethical principle and every religious belief – at least every current religious belief.
Some people go further and believe the sanctity of life begins with conception. Here there is no consensus. Others think life really begins with the implantation of the embryo in the uterus since very many embryos never implant. Certain religious practices suggest life begins at quickening, around the fifth month of pregnancy, when the fetus can be felt to move. Other people, of course, consider life to begin at birth.
Similarly, there are some who consider all life to be sacred and should never be purposely ended, even when an individual has been unconscious for years, or in intractable pain, and even when that individual has expressed the wish to die. Others think it is ethical to hasten such an individual’s death. These beliefs are controversial now. Even in situations where it might seem obvious to one person that life is no longer worth living, there are others who will disagree. Many people mourn terribly the loss of an abnormal pregnancy, when others would not. Some would mourn similarly over the death of an aged parent who had faded away years before because of Alzheimer’s disease. Particular deaths may be very painful. On the other hand, how often do people say: “It is good that mom (or dad) died now without suffering longer?” They judge their parent’s life to have lost its value.
The right to life, however it may be defined, is and ought to be explicit in our constitution and in the laws of every civilized society.
Nevertheless, however equal everyone may be under the law, society makes the uncomfortable judgment that some lives are worth more than others. Men in the secret service are trained to sacrifice themselves, if necessary, to save the life of the President. The effects of a presidential assassination are so dire that most people see this as appropriate. Policemen and firemen, and soldiers too, routinely risk their lives to save others; and there are times when they knowingly give up their lives to do so.
Ordinary people make similar sacrifices. The fact is that people’s lives are valued differently in our culture depending on a number of circumstances. Similarly, the value someone places on his or her own life changes over time in a way consistent with these societal views. Almost always, elderly parents would sacrifice their lives for their children, and some have done so. Those adult children might very well sacrifice their lives for their own children, but not for their parents. The death of a young parent is more tragic than the death of an old man or an infant. Drawn in such stark terms, a person’s life may be said to be more valuable at certain stages of life than at others.
In the health anxiety clinics we have run, the greater number of our patients have been young. Very few were old. Men and women who are old worry less about developing a fatal illness because their lives are worth less to them! They do not ordinarily speak in such terms; but, if asked, they would agree that that is so. I know because I have asked them.
A lesson for health worriers.