The True Cost of Delay

With so many groups working towards preventing, delaying or vilifying advances in medical technology, perhaps it is time to be a great deal more clear with ourselves about the true costs of these delays. Before I start, let me say that you're going to see some large numbers. People have an unfortunately tendency to zone out when faced with large numbers of deaths or widespread suffering - it's human nature. We are creatures who evolved to live in small groups and interact with a limited number of people. One death is a tragedy, but a million deaths are quickly forgotten: our brains do not make the necessary links for us to easily comprehend a million dead human beings. It becomes an abstract idea, stuffed away in our mental attic with all the other abstract ideas we encounter in our lives.

I'll ask you to try to put that aside. Make a real effort to comprehend just for a little while, to feel the true scale of ongoing death and suffering in the world:

Scientific work on stem cells, regenerative medicine, tissue engineering and understanding the basic biochemical mechanisms within the body will eventually allow us to grow new tissue to heal any non-fatal damage to the body (age-related or otherwise). Some scientists are working on enabling existing mechanisms to repair damage in situ, while others focus on engineering replacement tissue for implantation - some work blurs the line by employing both techniques. Some conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes, can already be reliably repaired in tissue samples and mice. Stem cell treatments for heart disease have already saved lives in the few human trials that have been allowed to proceed.

One day, all bodily damage - and thus all the effects of disease and aging - will be repairable through cheap, widespread medical interventions. That day may be 30, 50 or 100 years from now. The day on which most damage can be repaired will occur considerable sooner: the majority of deaths have only a few causes. Researchers can focus on those first of all. Every day that this research is delayed will be another day in which human beings suffer and die from conditions that cannot be cured, and from damage that cannot be repaired.

I believe that actively working to prevent this medical research is morally equivalent to actively preventing sick people from traveling to buy an available cure. Those who deliberately set out to block the advance of science bear responsibility for deaths caused by delays in making therapies available.

Approximately 150,000 people die every day, worldwide from the effects of disease and aging. 55 million lives a year.

Think about that for a moment: it's a staggering number. Each one of these deaths is the end of a unique, thinking, feeling human being - an unspeakable tragedy repeated thousands upon thousands of times in a torrent of loss and pain that cannot truly be visualized. This ongoing horror, this truth about the world that we try so hard to avoid, is also the cost of preventing advances in regenerative medicine. These are rates at which people will die, in the final days before cures are made available, due to delays in research currently being enforced.

I contend that none of the horrors perpetrated by governments and politicians in the 20th century hold a candle to the eventual cost in human life and suffering already incurred by the anti-research policies of Western governments in the first years of the 21st century. Advocates and scientists estimate a five year delay in the fields of stem cell research and therapeutic cloning, technologies fundamental to the advance of regenerative medicine - and you can do the math as well as I can.

Do we imagine that the politicians and activists who work hard to block medical research recognize that they advocate a quarter of a billion lives lost over a timescale of decades? Do they see this as an acceptable cost for their views? As they really willing to enforce that cost, to ensure that this many people - lives that might otherwise have been saved - die?

There's a tendency for people to throw large numbers of casualties out of the window as impossible to talk about. 250 million deaths cannot be discussed, they say. This is a terrible part of human nature, because those consequences are very real - you can't just magic them out of existence them because they are hard to talk about or discuss. Heavy handed or not, I am deliberately setting forth the position that Leon Kass, the Bioethics Council, President Bush and his administration, in their deliberate, successful attempts to block progress towards regenerative medicine, will have as their legacy more death and suffering than was caused by all the wars and dictators of the 20th century.

You can't just wave this future away because it is horrific, or because it is hard to think about. You can't ignore the ongoing death toll due to disease and aging that takes place today, every day. These are real people - these are you and I, our children, our future, our lives, our health and longevity.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is why we must all stand up and do our part in the fight to support medical research. It is the greatest war ever fought, and one in which we will all pay the ultimate price should we fail.


This post was prompted by discussions over at the Speculist on current US administration policies vis-a-vis stem cell medicine and other attempts to extend the healthy human life span:

It has led to some further comments from Stephen Gordon, that I reply to at the following location:

(And I'm beginning to think that a trackback capability for comments would be a very useful feature).

Founder, Longevity Meme

Posted by: Reason at February 20th, 2004 3:59 PM

There is an interesting article in a recent issue of The Economist talking about the economy of dollars spent to save a life. For example, it costs $0.1m/life for regulating child-proof lighters whereas it's $100,000m/life for landfill restrictions. Obviously, there's a lot that is in between. The point is that how we allocate money to saving lives is emotional rather than rational and if we looked at things more rationally we could save more lives for the same amount of money. The term "statistical murder" is mentioned, and that's what we're talking about. More people die each month from car accidents than died on 9/11. However, we have reacted by throwing a disproportionate amount of money at the problem of security without any measureable savings of lives, not to mention the cost of giving up civil liberties. We, as you touched on, think of the car accident statistics as just that... statistics, daunting numbers that nothing can be done about. I think a War on Car Accidents would yield much better results than the War on {Terror,Drugs,etc}, although personally the War's goal would be to reduce the need for cars. But it is also my belief that more money spent on medical research now would yield much more life savings than many of the big spending projects and wars we are currently sinking our public money into. Perhaps what is needed is to give these future statistical murder victims a public face.

Posted by: tomo at February 22nd, 2004 6:54 PM

Tomo says "Perhaps what is needed is to give these future statistical murder victims a public face".

We at the Methuselah Foundation have come to the same conclusion. That is why we are in the process of developing software that can automatically age digital photos so that individuals can see how they and their children will look in the future - and what might be avoided with sufficient funding of prizes, research and generation of public education


Posted by: David Gobel at February 23rd, 2004 1:56 PM

I respect the vital importance of the topic raised by the author, and also its large scale. But to deal with the problem, I think it becomes necessary to divide it into several parts.
The problem of war and peace, also mentioned by Tomo, is the first one; the task of medical and biological reasearch with the aim to save, lenthen and support human live and health is another part (actually, the author obviously gives the bigger accent to it); and the security issues are the third piece of this subject.
I wish the author were more specific in some of the details.

Posted by: ambulance doctor at April 4th, 2005 11:59 AM
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