Luckily for non-bioethicists, Princeton's Peter Singer recently addressed that very question in the NY Times. It's a must read. An important point to remember when analyzing the political posturing around this issue is that politicians who recklessly warn that proposed legislation will lead to healthcare "rationing" have already completely missed the point. The reality is that medical care is already rationed:
Health care is a scarce resource, and all scarce resources are rationed in one way or another. In the United States, most health care is privately financed, and so most rationing is by price: you get what you, or your employer, can afford to insure you for. But our current system of employer-financed health insurance exists only because the federal government encouraged it by making the premiums tax deductible. That is, in effect, a more than $200 billion government subsidy for health care. In the public sector, primarily Medicare, Medicaid and hospital emergency rooms, health care is rationed by long waits, high patient copayment requirements, low payments to doctors that discourage some from serving public patients and limits on payments to hospitals.(emphasis mine)
Speaking of assigning a quantitative value to human life, what about non-human life? Are some non-human lifeforms more valuable than others?
The answer to these questions, of course, depends on who you are. Few neuroscientists, for example, would disagree that certain organisms contain inherent value because of what their brains could teach us about our brains. Great apes are usually the first examples that come to mind (Don't think they have complex social brains? Watch a gorilla exchanging symbolic language with Mr. Rogers). Birds have illuminating brains too.
But I want to talk about whales. The use of military sonar has been shown to very harmful, even lethal, to whale populations. Last November, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled a California appellate court which had ruled, in the interest of whale preservation, to heavily restrict the Navy’s use of sonar devices in its training exercises. This aptly titled story adds important context:
In the end, the Supreme Court dispute over the use of sonar can be viewed as a turning point in our fraught relationship with whales — a moment when new insights into the behavior of our long-inscrutable, seabound mammalian counterparts began forcing us to reconsider and renegotiate what once seemed to be a distinct boundary between our world and theirs. Scientists have now documented behaviors like tool use and cooperative hunting strategies among whales. Orcas, or killer whales, have been found to mourn their own dead. Just three years ago, researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York discovered, in the brains of a number of whale species, highly specialized neurons that are linked to, among other things, the use of language and were once thought to be the exclusive property of humans and a few other primates. Indeed, marine biologists are now revealing not only the dizzying variety of vocalizations among a number of whale species but also complex societal structures and cultures.
(Read more from Wired on whale culture.)
Along with sonar, whale hunting also quickly depletes whale populations (even though a recent report found that whale watching holds more profit-potential than whale hunting). Last month, the International Whaling Commission failed to broker a compromise between whaling opponents and people that have killed over 40,000 whales since 1985. As a result, international calls are being made for better whale policy.