Bioethics and Life Extension
By Arnold Kling
The practical fact is that, of the three categories of death enumerated at the beginning of this section (early, “bad” late and “good” late), society seems committed to delaying all three. The only issue is the relative priority that should be given to delaying one versus another – and this must be evaluated in the context of foreseeable biomedical reality, not fantasy. Specifically, those who fear the consequences of a dramatic delay in both types of late death are engaging in profound intellectual dishonesty if they ignore the fact that meaningful compression of morbidity – that is, selective postponement of bad death and consequent increase in good deaths, without much change in life expectancy – is biomedically implausible. Rather, they must accept the fact that the only realistic approach to greatly postponing bad deaths is to combat aging itself, and that this will correspondingly postpone good deaths, thereby – unless we deliberately eschew measures to prevent early deaths, as noted above – greatly raising life expectancy, with all that that entails.
In other words, attempts to reduce disease and suffering in old age are inevitably going to extend life. A bioethics that supports one but not the other is incoherent.
Over two centuries ago, the rate of infant mortality was high. Without modern bioethicists to stop them, scientists found ways to bring the rate of infant and childhood mortality way down. This had profound social consequences. For example, people became interested in birth control, because they no longer needed to have a lot of children in order to have surviving heirs. People tended to invest more in “quality” than quantity when it came to children. No one is arguing that all of this is unnatural and that we should go back to the days of high infant mortality.
Life extension poses a similar “threat.” It would lead to profound social changes. Yet I doubt that one hundred years from now people will be saying, “Too bad people live so healthily for so long. Things were much better when most people suffered and died in their 80’s and 90’s.”