David Brooks’ column today on life and death is thought-provoking but ambiguous at several important points. It’s not clear whether, along with Dudley Clendinen, Brooks denies the value of life with diminished capacities or whether he simply thinks patients should sometimes choose to forego costly and uncertain treatments. (This ambiguity is part of why I think Wesley is too quick to fault Brooks for demeaning the ailing or building a case for death panels.)
As Wesley reminds us, the former view is dangerously mistaken. However, the latter view is both necessary and wise. As Ryan Anderson writes at National Review:
One can recognize that rising health-care costs, particularly at the end of life, are bankrupting our nation and thus failing to serve the common good without concluding that this entails that the lives of those with terminal diseases are no longer worth living. Between the two extremes of intentionally killing and prolonging life at all costs lies a virtuous mean of accepting death when the alternatives prove disproportionate.
In fact, this is just what Pope John Paul the Great, in his last act of public teaching, taught the world as he humbly accepted his death — neither deeming life with Parkinson’s disease unworthy of living (and thus killing himself) nor demanding every life-sustaining treatment (irrespective of cost, likelihood of success, and alternative uses for scarce resources).
Like Ryan, I wish Brooks had clearly affirmed the value of the lives of the seriously impaired and terminally ill. This affirmation will have to be central if we are to responsibly reckon with swelling health-care costs.