In the midst of William Saletan's latest at Slate, we find a timely reminder that the President's Council on Bioethics will be just as hostile to freedom of research and efforts to extend the healthy human life span post-Kass as it was when Leon Kass pronounced his desire to mandate aging and death for the masses from his position as chair.
The debate over today's topic, aging, breaks down along similar lines. The younger, more liberal faction wants to talk about allocation of resources. We spend too much money on sickness and not enough on prevention, they argue. Too much on keeping old Americans alive for two more months, and not enough on protecting African babies from AIDS. Too much on doctors, and not enough on safe air and water.
The older, more conservative faction wants to get beyond questions of allocation. Even if we can afford to extend life spans, should we? Where does it end? What's the point of living once you've had your education, raised your kids, and finished your labors? What if you can't think straight, recognize your family, or remember who you were? How many of your parts can we replace before your body no longer feels like it's yours? Maybe life should be finite even if doesn't have to be. Life is "not an absolute good," the council's gentlest speaker, Alfonso Gomez-Lobo, advises his colleagues. "There are moments in which we just have to open ourselves to the fact that we have to let go."
The conservatives worry that extended life will become pointless and empty - an escalator to nowhere, as council member Bill Hurlbut puts it. They fear the loss of limits. Life-extending procedures "are going to become easier to do and relatively less burdensome," says Kass. If "there's no such thing as enough," the obligation to prolong life will become "limitless," defying the principle of "the life cycle, the accepting of limits."
Philosophical nonsense on one hand, economic nonsense - the same old tired refrain of centralized control of resources and imposed equality, the one sure path to poverty and pain for all - on the other, united in opposition to research that could prevent the suffering and death of billions in the decades ahead. Can you imagine the uproar if these people were talking about suppressing cancer research or diabetes research? Bioethics has become a business of self-justification through the creation of problems where none exist, and thus has been harnessed by those groups who are opposed to progress and change. The Bioethics Council is just as much the rubber stamp for anti-research politics as it has been. It's a sorry end for once-admired medical ethics.