“How Much is a Human Life Worth?”

For a Secularist, the Answer is Complicated

“How much is a human life worth?” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo pontificated on that question in a May 5th press briefing:

How much is a human life worth? That is the real discussion that no one is admitting, openly or freely [but] that we should. To me, I say the cost of a human life, a human life is priceless. Period.

He was explaining his administration’s decision to not reopen. He acknowledged that there would be personal and economic costs to staying closed, but, citing data models projecting a sharp rise in deaths by June due to states reopening, he said that for him and his state, the cost in lost human lives was the determining factor. Because “the faster we reopen ... the more lives lost.”

I’m not going to take up the matter of whether the death rate projection was accurate (time and data wonks will settle that), nor whether the governor’s decision was the best one for his state (New York voters will have their say on that). What I want to do here is examine Mr. Cuomo’s evaluation of human life. Because, well, it’s complicated.

Just a little over a year ago, he signed into law New York’s Reproductive Health Act, which legalized abortion through all nine months of pregnancy, right up to the moment of birth. At the time he stated:

The Reproductive Health Act is a historic victory for New Yorkers ... I am directing that New York's landmarks be lit in pink to celebrate this achievement and shine a bright light forward for the rest of the nation to follow.

Those landmarks included One World Trade Center’s 408-foot spire and three New York bridges (see flickr photos here), one of which was named after his father. Even some liberal, pro-choice New Yorkers found the celebratory show a bit disconcerting. “I am an independent [and] pro-choice,” said Lisa Fogarty of the New York Daily News. “But I draw the line at parading this law around like it’s a circus, with Cuomo as the ringleader and a national monument lit up like it’s confetti.”

Are you following this so far? In 2019, the worth of a human life to Mr. Cuomo was nothing, as long as it had not yet reached a certain age. And the legal enshrinement of that valuation was “a bright light forward” and cause for celebration.

A similar valuation was in play, only at the other end of the age range when, in the thick of the outbreak, the governor issued an order requiring nursing homes to receive hospital patients recovering from the virus – regardless of whether or not they were still contagious. Nursing homes, by definition, are places of ongoing close contact, so the inevitable result was to subject residents to a heightened risk of infection. When challenged about the mandate, Mr. Cuomo responded:

“[Nursing homes] don’t have the right to object. That is the rule, and that is the regulation, and they have to comply with it.”

Predictably, nursing home deaths spiked. Thankfully, some reporters were conscientious enough to question him about it. “What do you say to families [who] are looking for accountability?” he was asked at a May 17th press conference. Here is his response, slightly edited for clarity (click here for the original):

We lost 139 people yesterday in hospitals. Who is accountable for those 139 deaths? How do we get justice for those families? What is justice? Who can we prosecute? Nobody. Nobody. Mother Nature? God? Where did this virus come from? People are going to die by this virus. That is the truth. ...

Older people, vulnerable people, are going to die from this virus. That is going to happen. Despite whatever you do. Because with all of our progress as a society, we can’t keep everyone alive. Despite everything you do. And older people are more vulnerable. And that is a fact and that is not going to change…Why do people die? Who’s accountable? You can have a situation where everyone did the right thing. And people still die.

He might as well have said, Sh** happens. What is truth?

Of course, he is right that death happens (but wrong, in this case, to wash his hands of all responsibility). But my point here is not to evaluate his decisions, nor to comment on the politics of abortion. I’m pointing out these ever-fluid evaluations of human life – one some days it’s priceless, on other days, worthless.

So, the governor’s question remains, How much is a human life worth? But his answer isn’t just complicated. It’s incoherent. When does it move from nothing to priceless? And at what point on the timeline does it revert back to nothing? Tell us, Mr. Cuomo, if you know. You said the question was profound and that we should be talking about it. But I recommend you consult your Catholic roots before you talk about it anymore. The maker of your life and mine has already answered that question for us. Every life, every human life is priceless. Period.

 is Deputy Editor of Salvo and writes on apologetics and matters of faith.

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