(copyright Ron Tandberg)
Life expectancy, or the average length of life in a given population (mostly a country), is of importance to the issue of human rights. A low life expectancy means shorter life spans. Now, it’s not because a life is relatively short that is has to be less fulfilling, less happy or less meaningful. However, it is obvious that a longer life will allow for more activity, self-development and freedom, and hence for more enjoyment of human rights, than a shorter life.
Moreover, longer life expectancies are often an indicator of better health and healthcare, and good health is a prerequisite for human rights. Bad average health or healthcare and low life expectancy, on the contrary, are indicators of poverty, and poverty is in itself a violation of certain human rights and makes other human rights impossible.
Life expectancy in Western countries today is almost double what it was in the pre-modern era. This is the consequence of highly reduced infant mortality rates, modern medicine (e.g. before modern medicine, one in four women died in childbirth), improvements in sanitation (sewers) and nutrition, etc. Especially in the last century did we see enormous progress. In the US for example, life expectancy at the beginning of the 1900s was 50 years. At the end of the same century it was 77 (with differences of course between male and female and between social classes; poverty, in particular, has a substantial effect on life expectancy).
Of course, as in most cases, the developing countries haven’t achieved the same levels as the West. They have improved their numbers but there are still large and shocking inequalities in life expectancy, with Africa again bearing the heaviest burden. Sub-Saharan Africa (partly because of HIV) has even seen a decrease in life expectancy during the last decades. The former USSR also saw a decrease.
A person’s life in one of the poorest countries will on average be half as long as the life of a person fortunate enough to be born in a rich country.
(High infant mortality rates in a particular country (see this post), can bring down rates of life expectancy at birth drastically. In these cases, another measure such as life expectancy at age 5 can be used to exclude the effects of infant mortality to reveal the effects of causes of death other than early childhood causes. However, that’s somehow “cooking the books” since infant mortality does reduce the life expectancy of the infants in question. On the other extreme are some people who want to include aborted fetuses in life expectancy rates).