- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 14, 2003

This is the fourth part in a series of editorials on the challenges raised by the October report of the President’s Council on Bioethics.

If they were given just one wish this holiday season, few people would ask to become old. After all, aging brings infirmities, the loss of loved ones and the certainty of one’s own mortality.

The most benevolent byproduct of biotechnology could be its ability to extend human lives to great length — perhaps indefinitely. Longer lifespans would provide individuals the opportunity to grow more, to experience more and to become more. Greater learning coupled to greater life experience might produce Solomonic wisdom, while longer years of labor added to additional earning opportunities could produce fantastic wealth.

Such opportunities to slow — or stop — the clock should probably be embraced. However, as “Beyond Therapy” points out, they will have great but uncertain effects on society and also could carry hidden costs to individuals.

Lifespans can be extended in three different ways. The first is increasing the length of the average life by reducing mortality among infants and the middle aged. Over the last decade, those techniques have increased life expectancy at birth in Western nations by decades. Other scientists are attempting to extend the life of the elderly and undo the damage done by aging by doing research on stem cells and memory-enhancement techniques. Direct retardation of aging — through preventing damage done to cellular components and turning off genes responsible for cell death — has the greatest potential to extend lifespans.

The mechanisms that drive aging are not yet well understood, but someday scientists are likely discover a way to slow, or even stop, the aging process. Assuming those options are relatively free of side effects, few individuals would refuse such treatments.

While near-immortality might give much to society, it might take much away. Without retirements and deaths, there could be little change in the leadership of large institutions. Fertility rates would probably drop even more than they have in Western countries. The absence of youth, coupled with a slower generational overturn, might result in a general loss of societal vigor, with reduced dynamism and less innovation.

The effects could be just as stark at the individual level. After all, aging not only gives youth its angst, it also provides adulthood its purpose. Near-immortality might well steal the “carpe” from the “diem,” since multiplied days might leave few reasons to seize the moments in any of them. Instead of increasing in wisdom and multiplying in works, near-immortality might make individuals more indolent, more immature. As the President’s Council on Bioethics points out, “Only aging and death remind us that time is of the essence.” In addition, instead of accepting death as an unwelcome but inevitable event, age-retarded individuals might become more obsessed with avoiding it.

Years might be indefinitely extended, but the fulfillment of life still will be found in its moments — instances of discovery, of labor, of achievement, and even of failure. Both the bitter and the sweet are essential to the experience of life. Even “immortals” must live in each moment.

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