- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 30, 2007

A whole nation following the tragedy of a Utah mine cave-in was struck by the further tragedy of another cave-in at the same mine, killing men who had gone underground to try to rescue the miners trapped there.

The second tragedy was avoidable — but only if we were willing to talk about human life in terms of tradeoffs. But our society has become too squeamish to do so.

As day after day went by, with no sign whatever that the trapped miners were still alive and with dwindling chances each day of their remaining alive, even if they had somehow survived the cave-in, at some point it makes no sense to risk more lives to try to save them.

“But what if it was your brother or your father down there?” some would say. “Would you want to stop looking if there was any chance at all that he might still be alive?” The short answer is: What if your brother or your father had to risk his life in a rescue attempt underground?

Tradeoffs are inescapable in every aspect of life. But anyone who talks about tradeoffs when life is at stake is likely to be denounced as lacking compassion, if not cruel. Squeamishness is too often confused with humanity, but the consequence of squeamishness can be needless suffering and needless deaths.

Many a coldblooded murderer has had his life spared because people squeamish about executions imagine it is more moral or humane to lock him up for life — or until he escapes or is pardoned someday when an even more squeamish governor is elected.

Additional people murdered by convicted murderers are part of the grim price paid for that squeamishness. They can be murdered while in prison or on the outside, perhaps during one of those “furloughs” for prisoners so fashionable among those who flatter themselves that they are more advanced thinkers than the rest of us. The price of their vanity can be deaths more terrible than the executions they regard as too cruel to carry out.

Some of the victims of our squeamishness die unnoticed because their deaths are not considered as newsworthy as the deaths of victims of mine cave-ins or of murder. Thousands die every year waiting for organ transplants that never come, and some of these deaths come at the end of months or years of debilitation and suffering. In some countries, it is legal to purchase organs to be transplanted. Some people spend up to $100,000 to go to those countries for a transplant operation when they cannot get a kidney or a liver or other organ here.

Why is selling an organ illegal here? Because so many people are so squeamish about such a transaction.

Many of these squeamish people are in good health and will probably never need an organ transplant. But others not so fortunate must suffer and die because these physically healthy people would feel squeamish about organs being bought and sold.

No doubt people who are poor are more likely to sell a kidney than people who are rich, so opposition to such sales can be wrapped in the rhetoric of “social justice.”

But what is just about denying some people an opportunity to get out of poverty and denying others an opportunity to get out of debilitation and suffering that can only end in death?

Not all organ sales would have to be from living people, just as most organ transplants today are not from living people. People could sell the right to have their organs removed after death or sell the rights to the organs of dead family members, if they chose.

Nothing is easier than to conjure horrible results from sales of organs. But the very reason we have laws is because horrible things could happen otherwise in every aspect of life.

More organs to transplant are needed, and people tend to supply more of anything when they are paid more — and especially when they are paid something instead of nothing.

But, here as elsewhere, we must first overcome squeamishness. And the first step is to stop confusing it with being humane.

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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