The Scary Future of Pro-Death Bioethics

Of late, I have started to explore the idea that present day opposition to serious anti-aging research (as led by Leon Kass, Francis Fukuyama and others) will lead to legislation blocking or limiting our access to healthy life extension technologies.

Politicians - even in comparatively free countries like the US - already exert a great deal of control over access to medicine, what you can and can't do with your body, and what medical research is permitted. Unfortunately, this power is already being abused - as power always is - in many areas, including stem cell research and therapeutic cloning. It is a small leap from the present day functions of the FDA to a body that sets maximum life spans by enforcing restrictions on new anti-aging medical technologies.

George Dvorsky has written an excellent article on this topic that is currently posted at Betterhumans. I quote a fair amount in this post, but there is a good deal more where that came from - so read the whole thing.

So as the prospect of radical life extension becomes more real with each passing year, prominent bio-Luddites have gone on the offensive to convince immortal wannabes that death is where it's at.

They speak in a flowery and comforting tone, proclaiming that death defines our species and endows our lives with meaning, purpose and social stability.

The most outspoken of these thanatophiles are, of course, Leon Kass and Francis Fukuyama, both of whom sit on the President's Council on Bioethics in the US. They're not alone, however, and can count a number of bioconservatives—including Charles Krauthammer and Bill McKibbin—on their side.

William Hurlbut, also of the Bioethics Council, has also spoken out recently against increasing the healthy human life span. George Dvorsky echoes my concerns regarding the future of pro-death bioethics:

I consider myself open to ideas and alternative perspectives, but as I consider the arguments of the bio-Luddites and look deeper into their meaning, I have come to realize that the death-promoting propaganda campaign is more than just a battle for hearts and minds. I get the impression that - should radical life extension technologies become readily available - these detractors, some of whom have the ear of the President, would go much further than fighting a war of words in their attempt to ensure that we never gain mastery over our mortality.


At times the bio-Luddites sound parochial and authoritarian, and at their worst they sound downright ideological and even totalitarian.

Indeed, as Kass has repeatedly stated, "the finitude of human life is a blessing for every individual, whether he knows it or not." And frighteningly, when asked by Brian Alexander, the author of Rapture: How Biotechnology Became the New Religion, if the government has a right to tell its citizens that they have to die, Fukuyama answered, "Yes, absolutely."

Is it just me, or do all of these people - who make policy recommendations and are appointed members of an organization used to justify restrictive govenment policies on medical research - start to sound very scary when you look closely at what they are actually saying?

George Dvorsky believes that the march of science towards serious anti-aging medicine of the sort proposed by Aubrey de Grey is, ultimately, unstoppable. Healthy life extension is simply too desirable to too many people, and scientific development - on the largest scales and over decades of time - follows the will of the people. Minorities in positions of power can greatly slow and damage this progress, however:

It'll only be a matter of time before these researchers make greater and greater strides in their work, resulting in a steady flow of life extension interventions destined for the market. The human lifespan will become increasingly longer and longer, and every year of extra life will bring people closer to the next antiaging intervention.

Unless, of course, drastic measures are put in place to prevent this from happening. Similar to the current War on Drugs, it's conceivable that a bioconservative government could impose a War on Life, fighting against life extension research and related technologies. Scientific research would be closely monitored and regulated, with scientists being forced to work within state-sanctioned guidelines.

This is not as farfetched as it might sound. Current governments in both the US and Canada, for example, have enacted extremely stringent policies in regards to stem cell and cloning research. The US in particular currently boasts one of the most anti-science regimes in all of its history. Given the prominence of religious and Luddite forces, combined with a mostly scientifically illiterate and politically challenged populace, the US government may continue this regressive policy as human enhancement technologies increasingly come info focus and into practical use.

As I have long been saying, it wouldn't take too many decades of repressive government policy to prevent everyone reading this article from ever seeing the fruits of real anti-aging research. How do you feel about these groups that are working to deny you, I, and everyone else the opportunity to live longer, healthier lives? Think about that today - because making a better future, one free of age-related disease and the slow death of failing bodies, will take all of us working together. If we don't speak out, our rights will be trampled.

George Dvorsky concludes with these thoughts:

And as for the bio-Luddite deathists, they're offering Americans the worst and most useless kind of ethics. It is an ethics without foundation in reality and devoid of pragmatic guidance and practical solutions. It simply doesn't do for the coming realities of 21st century life.

Consequently, the pro-death rhetoric is only resulting in a confused and scared populace, backwards and stifling legislation and a depraved indifference to the 50 million lives lost each year. And since the members of the US President's Council on Bioethics recognize the scientific plausibility of negligible senescence, their systematic curtailment and prevention of life extension research could be construed someday as a crime against humanity.

Don't believe their hype. Fight for your right to live.

I couldn't agree more, and it's a great shame that the field once known as medical ethics has degenerated into a coven of high profile bioethicists set on finding the best way to prevent new medicines from saving lives.

Squashing the opposition to serious anti-aging medical research will require supporters of healthy life extension to start our side of the coming battle early. We can't afford to wait for entrenched pro-death bioethicists to gain even greater influence over our overbearing, winner-takes-all governments.


Luddites are always on the wrong side of history.

In this particular case I don't think they will be particularly successful at slowing progress. The original Luddites at least had a constituency - people who were losing their livelihoods over mechanization.

Where is the constituency for death? Morticians? Coroners? Life insurance salesmen? Presumably even these people will ultimately favor a change in profession over becoming subject to it.

Seriously though, there is a highly influential constituency that has reason to fight life extension. Two great functions of religion are to prepare people for their death, and comfort survivors on the loss of loved ones. What will become of religion when lifespans are indefinite?

People will still die in accidents. And, presumably, even immortals would seek guidance in how to live, so religion will not leave with aging, but it will be challenged.

Posted by: Stephen Gordon at June 11th, 2004 6:43 AM

Ok, the US outlaws life extension technology, stem cell-based products and other "morally repugnant" proceedures. I'll just buy what I want from China. Assuming the technology is available and not reserved solely for their polticial elite.

Posted by: kyle at June 14th, 2004 7:50 AM

Thankfully there are dedicated volunteers and research scientists who are working hard with new technologies to promote healthy life-extension.

The Methuselah Foundation is dedicated to raising public awareness that the control of aging is forseeable, and that the obstacles to its realization are more social and financial than technological. The Methuselah Mouse Prize, a monetary award given to the creators of the longest lived mouse, is only one of the ongoing efforts to accomplish this end.

Aging reduces people to shadows of the energetic and hopeful individuals that we are in our youth. I wonder what the world would be like with the long term perspectives and accumulation of wisdom of an vibrant and healthy elderly population?

Support The Methuselah Mouse Prize and put your vote in for healthy life-extension1

Posted by: Kevin Perrott at June 14th, 2004 7:52 AM

How can you advocate 'life-extension' at the expense of innocent human life? If you are so 'pro-human' why would you not fight for the life of the unborn children you are trying to use to extend your own life? It seems like the powerful using the innocent as a mere means for their own selfish end (hmmm..Stalin, Pol Pot, guys sound familiar). You offer a terrifying view of the future as 'immortals' decide the fate of 'weaker' lives, with no moral compass other than what *you* decide is best for *you*. Of course, you dress it up as your rights - but only insofar as you get to determine the rights of others (of course they could jump on the 'immortal' bandwagon and join you -if you let them). Who decides who gets these technologies? Does money decide? Gender? Nationality? Political Party? Why isn't the question about how do we live lives of quality, substance, and weight rather than the 'god-syndrome' that you all are chasing after?

Posted by: Mike at June 15th, 2004 10:22 PM

Mike: the small clumps of a few dozen cells - unthinking, unfeeling, microscopic - used in embryonic stem cell research are a long, long way from "unborn children" in my mind. A great deal of science is required to even give such a thing the possibility of growing into an unborn child. You might as well be agonizing over shed flakes of skin - which would also require a great deal of science to grow into an unborn child.

The two sides in the abortion/embryonic research debate are not going to see eye to eye. Your side believes that these tiny cell clumps have greater worth than a living, breathing, suffering, dying human. My side doesn't.

As to the rest of your argument, let me turn it around. I think you are projecting: you sound quite comfortable with condemning billions to suffering and death simply to accomodate your views regarding embryonic stem cell research.

Posted by: Reason at June 15th, 2004 10:35 PM

Stephen Gordon writes: Luddites are always on the wrong side of history.

Are you familiar with the eugenics movement? The encouragement of advantageous human breeding was presented as a great scientific advancement; and its opponents, as old-fashioned Luddites.

Not that Luddites (as you call them) are always right -- but it would be rather bizarre to claim that by naming the opponents as Luddites, you have proved their cause to be wrong.

Posted by: James Nightshade at June 15th, 2004 11:10 PM


>>the small clumps of a few dozen cells - unthinking, unfeeling, microscopic - used in embryonic stem cell research are a long, long way from "unborn children" in my mind.

How so? They are human aren?t they? They certainly aren?t plants, or bacteria, or monkeys. It seems you define them that way to rationalize killing them and using them. You are defining people in terms of functionality. Babies, sleeping people, the mentally challenged, and persons in a coma aren?t *fully* functional, either. Are they dispensable? It isn?t about what they can *do* - it is about *who* they are. So, when are they unborn children? At conception, a complete, genetically unique individual is formed that directs its own growth and development. Their sex is determined, eye color, hair color, all genetic attributes. From that point, it is only a matter of development.

I have no idea what you mean by: >>A great deal of science is required to even give such a thing the possibility of growing into an unborn child.

There is NO science involved. All they need is a proper environment. They are already human persons (human development presupposes human personhood) and left alone (or, if having been removed from the womb thawed and put back into the womb) they will develop into an adult. It is OUR intervention that disrupted the process. I have a M.S. in Biochemistry and a Doctorate in Molecular and Cellular Biology. Rest assured that a few flakes of skin and a genetically complete human person are not even close to the same. You need to read a ?science? textbook!

>>Your side believes that these tiny cell clumps have greater worth than a living, breathing, suffering, dying human.

You are wrong. I do not value a pre-born person more than an already born person. I value them the *same* since they are BOTH persons. An embryo is not *just* a clump of cells. You call it that because you know deep down it is wrong. At least be intellectually honest and call is what it is: Killing a human person to use them as a mere means to ?fix? someone already alive. This is ?might makes right? rationalized.

>>I think you are projecting: you sound quite comfortable with condemning billions to suffering and death simply to accommodate your views regarding embryonic stem cell research.

Again, ridiculous. Are there really *billions* dying due to the embryonic stem cell ban? Adult stem cells have been shown to be MUCH more effective therapeutically and *we don?t destroy another person*! Alzheimer?s researchers have publicly stated that embryonic stem cells hold little to no promise!

Lastly, I am not pro-death. Death is the greatest evil a person can endure. It was NEVER meant to be this way. We were destined for resurrection and eternal life - life with the Source of life, being, and wholeness.

Posted by: Mike at June 16th, 2004 11:26 AM

Mike, youre religious bias is showing. As for as science is concerned, we were not 'meant' to do anything, there is no intelligent design implied anywhere, nor any motive. We define it.

Do not bring the issue of aborted embryos into this. There are many other methods to life extension besides stem cells, that is a separate debate. I will counter your claims for any who come on them here.

Money already decides who gets technologies. This has always been present in nature. The strong get more food, more shelter, and yes, more medicine. They also endure less risk to obtain what they want, and probably endure less injury which is a threat to their survival. If you want equality, when people are obviously unequal in their abilities to contribute, you are an advocate of communism. I am a capitalist.

Gender would not decide it, women can make money too. Nor would political party, as far as I know, I'm not certain where you would get this. The longer you live, the longer you have to learn, gain experience, make friends, acquire skills, and the more hope you have and motivation to plan for the future. This makes you live a life of more quality, substance and weight. Life extension is merely one aspect of it. Don't think we all want to live forever just to drool and watch sitcoms. In fact, I dare say we might tire of simpler forms of entertainment with time's sophistication, and value humanity and higher forms of time consumption.

James Nightshade: Just because the wrong people use the term luddites for the wrong reason doesn't mean you're wrong to use it. In it's initial stages (and still now) Eugenics is far too misunderstood to be employed realistically. It was full of racism and other old stupid biases, largely based on physical characteristics. Now, we'd likely do it by the mind's potential, and there are few ways of evaluating it as we haven't separated meme from gene, nor identified what aspects are ideal, as we benefit largely from a variety in the population anyway. We already have eumenics, and it's selecting quite well, it's called education, and higher salaries made from those with the minds to harness it.

Back to Mike: Human's a relative term, at what point in evolutionary history would you be okay with eating your ancestors, or your distant cousins? Even 'animal' and 'plant' often become relative when you go down to many microscopic organisms, many of whom die in the process of our day to day existance. Face it, it's not 'human' that matters anymore, it's consciousness.

Genetics don't really mean much. For example, you might say that being abstinent when you could have sex and form a human being by combining your genes with another is a crime, as you deny them life by not allowing them to form. In that case, rape would abound, to give these potential humans life, at the lesser cost of disadvantaging the living females who may not desire it to happen. This is basically the battle going on in the abortion issue today,

As for how to define a human, that's still under much debate, but I'd say if you can remove a baby from the mother's womb and keep it alive, then go ahead and do it, but otherwise, you shouldn't be able to force her to carry it to term against her will. It's as good as rape or unwanted surgery.

I am somewhat doubtful of your masters in biochem and doctorate in cellular biology. A skin cell contains all the DNA fond in a human being, just like an embryo, it just needs an egg. The only difference is that the skin cell is older, might have some bad mutations (just like some embryos do anyway), and isn't currently in a state where you can just leave it and have it do it's thing, but you can make it into a human. Either way, both are just cells, they do not possess consciousness, and both possess the potential to attain consciousness if they develope in a womb. I think your belief in the 'soul' is interfering with your scientific objectivity.

As for your claims that embryonic stem cell research isn't as good as adult stem cell research... well sorry, but I heartily disagree. Why else could people be lobbying for it? If it is indeed inferior, then there is no problem with legalizing embryonic stem cells, they will simply go unused, in favour of the 'superior' adult stem cells. The point is, there's still no reason to block the area, there's a potential use for EVERYTHING in science.

Posted by: Tyciol at September 2nd, 2006 4:10 PM
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