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What price life?

Last week, Mr Elferink, the Northern Territory Minister for Health, was interviewed by the ABC. According to the report, he argued that the money spent on the health of the elderly, and particularly on those in the last year of their lives – a million dollars for each person – would be better spent on children. He mused,

‘I suspect if you spoke to somebody who, … for arguments sake, had end-stage renal failure and said: “We can continue treatment but by discontinuing treatment your grandchildren would have a better opportunity”.

‘Many of those old people would say “Yeah I accept that”.’

Many Australians politicians and health administrators would secretly sympathise with the position attributed to the Minister, but few would speak so bluntly. They might be more reluctant to upset older voters. Some might also reflect that in the Northern Territory Indigenous Australians are seventeen times more liable to suffer from renal disease than other Australians.

Mr Elferink later clarified his comments, saying that he simply wanted to raise questions about the helpfulness of many costly interventions at the end of life, an important issue already widely debated in the community.

But underlying this debate, and latent in Mr Elferink’s imagined conversation, lies the twin assumption that the life of an old person’s life is of less value than that of a younger person, and that people’s value is measured by their economic contribution. On these assumptions it follows that the way in which we treat different people can rightly be decided on economic grounds.

These assumptions are antipathetic to all that Jesuit Social Services stand for, whether in our work with rural people in the Northern Territory or with vulnerable young people in the city. We hold that each human being is precious, and that their human dignity must be respected. Their worth cannot be reduced to economic considerations.

Human beings are more than a cost. They are our brothers and sisters to whom we are responsible. If they are vulnerable we have a responsibility as a society to ensure that they can live decently regardless of their economic contribution.

That is a noble ideal. It has always been under pressure from those who see other human beings as means to their ends. They usually shape arguments from economic needs and limited resources.

In the Northern Territory the economic stringency created by cuts in federal funding and other factors is real. It may mean cuts in local spending. But if so, the territory budget should ensure that these cuts do not put at risk the health and welfare of vulnerable people. The allocation of resources should serve the good of all the people, and especially the most vulnerable – both the elderly and children.

People at the end of their lives should be involved in the decisions about their own treatment and be informed of its likely effects. Their lives should not be placed in the hands of doctors, whether those decisions are to take burdensome measures or to withdraw treatment without consultation.

Certainly these decisions should be guided by the desires and needs of the person, not by an assessment of their economic contribution to society. People are a gift to be treasured, not an economic resource to be exploited and discarded. They should be treated as such.

 

– Andy Hamilton SJ