Is it ever right to place a dollar value on people?
Pro-life lawmakers in Texas are getting creative about saying “Yes” to women’s health services while saying “No” to abortion on the taxpayer’s dime. State senators backing the push (Republicans all) want to restore previously cut funding for family planning. But they’ll only agree to the reallocation on one condition: The dollars must go toward setting up and sustaining a state-run system of primary care for low-income women.
It’s a canny move, as the earlier cuts caused dozens of family-planning clinics to close their doors. For many women of low means across the Lone Star State, those clinics offered not only referrals to abortion providers but also access to doctors and nurses in general. The clinics’ prior links to abortion providers are precisely what led to their getting cut off from the public trough, so the new arrangement would be designed to avert such affiliations.
There’s some hashing out of details to be done in Austin, but pro-choice legislators would have a hard time looking good while bucking a major new program — $100 million strong — dedicated to helping poor women. Some might even call the proposal a brilliant piece of political strategizing.
In the end, that observation might prove instructive to other state governing bodies yet irrelevant to the body politic. For, in reporting the development, the Texas Tribune pointed to estimates that the earlier cuts “could lead to 24,000 additional births in 2014-15 at a cost to taxpayers of $273 million.”
The Tribune doesn’t cite the source behind those figures, but no matter. Both parties are sure to cite them should the “Texas solution” become a success story of bipartisan cooperation on women’s health issues.
Now here’s where things get interesting for Catholic observers. One needn’t be steeped in the Church’s social teaching to agree that broadening access to basic healthcare is a good thing. Meanwhile, some studies have suggested that women with low access to primary care tend to have more repeat abortions than their financially stable peers. But is the common good truly served when public policy derives from dollar valuations of human lives?
Whoever crunched the numbers in Texas came up with the tidy tab of $11,375 per birth. Other recent placers of price tags on people have included the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which estimated a bill of $235,000 to raise a child to age 17, and the FDA, which stated that one human life is worth about $8 million. (The latter has upped its valuation of a person by nearly $3 million since 2008 in a not-so-subtle bid to secure more stringent standards and regulations.)
And then there were the startlingly blunt declarations from the executive branch of the federal government defending the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate on the basis of its budgetary benefits. President Obama said the overall cost of healthcare “is lower when women have access to contraceptive services,” while Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services, spelled things out even more starkly: “The reduction in the number of pregnancies compensates for the cost of contraception.”
Fewer pregnancies, fewer people. Fewer people, lower cost. It’s a no-brainer — except when it isn’t.
In developed countries experiencing precipitous population decline, fewer people means higher cost. The price is not merely monetary — intangibles like optimism among youth are not self-generating resources — but, to those with ears to hear, the numbers fairly scream: “The patient is terminal.”
It’s simple, really. In a stable population with a healthy growth rate, active wage earners collectively pay enough taxes to care for retired workers and others who depend on a social safety net. This begins to breaks down as retirees outnumber workers. Eventually the equation becomes unsustainable, and society goes broke.
To see this sad fate play out in real time and in real life, take a look at Japan. As recently as the 1980s, the Land of the Rising Sun was an economic powerhouse. Now some financial experts believe that the national debt it has incurred to pay for its programs has placed it on an inexorable path to insolvency.
Japan’s fertility rate is below 1.4 — it takes around 2.07 children born per woman of child-bearing age just to maintain a population — and deaths there now outnumber births by tens of thousands. It has the oldest population in the world, with close to a quarter of the population 65 or older. The same trend can be seen, albeit on a somewhat less dramatic scale, in China, Eastern Europe and even Western societies such as Greece and Italy.
According to the Population Reference Bureau, a D.C.-based research group, the U.S. is doing better but not necessarily well, averaging 2.1 children per woman and seeing the over-65 demographic expand by nearly 1 million per year.
Which brings us back to the question of whether or not it’s right and good to place numbers, including dollar figures, on people in order to set public policy. The short answer — a snap to anyone wise enough to have a household budget — is that of course it’s good and proper, as long as you account for what people contribute as well as what they cost. And as long as you keep in mind that there are many kinds of contributions, and you can’t put a dollar figure on all of them. If you did and lived by it in your own home, your dog and cat would have to go as well as your live-in grandmother. All they add is love. What’s that worth?
In warning against the moral perils of utilitarianism, Bl. John Paul II said that the opposite of love is not hate, but use. Decrying the same danger, if only inadvertently, the physically disabled poet Robert Michael Hensel — holder of the Guinness World Record for longest wheelchair wheelie — recently tweeted: “There is no greater disability in society than the inability to see a person as more.”
The emphasis on his last word has been added, but the wisdom of Hensel’s observation can’t be amplified enough. Here’s hoping something like it reaches the Texas legislators and others who may seek to follow their example of bipartisan policymaking on women’s healthcare. The Lone Star State may not save the full $273 million in babies not born, but its investment will yield returns that can’t be measured out, yet which must be factored in.