Is Longer Life Better?
The hydra is a freshwater animal, just a few millimeters long. It acts like an upside-down sedentary jellyfish, collecting food with tentacles. The creature is especially interesting in this: It seems to be immortal. Because the hydra reproduces by budding rather than mating, it uses its stem cells to regenerate aging tissue. Scientists have discovered that the same gene responsible for the hydra's continual use of stem cells could allow human bodies to better repair themselves and potentially live healthier and longer.
The discovery is only the latest scientific breakthrough to make very real the possibility that we will, sooner or later, extend the human life span.
But should we? Gilbert Meilaender, a professor of theology at Valparaiso University and former member of the President's Council on Bioethics, takes up this question in Should We Live Forever? The Ethical Ambiguities of Aging (Eerdmans). At a time when millions die without access to basic medical care, extending the life span of a few might seem morally dubious. But Meilaender leaves aside many related ethical questions, such as the problem of ensuring equitable access, for rich and poor alike, to these prospective fountains of youth. Instead, he zeroes in on the issue of whether, in and of itself, it would be good to pursue longer life.
Meilaender doesn't categorically reject extending life. If life is good, he argues, it very well may be good to have more of it. But there are costs, and that is the crux of the dilemma.
By seeking more life, we change what a human life is, and inevitably lose aspects that make it desirable. There is especially a tradeoff between life extension and reproduction. One life extension method—calorie restriction—works in part by shutting down the reproductive system, while another method prevents puberty. Living longer, it seems, will pit the generations against each other. At the same time, seeking longer life in order to love others, Meilaender admits, "makes me hesitant … to dismiss too quickly the desire to retard aging."
Meilaender examines several other life-extending methods, like "downloading" our minds, removing us from our bodies, in order to live on as machines. What, he asks, are the possible consequences for future generations?
With each difficulty raised, Meilaender circles his subject, examining it from the perspective of one hoping to live forever, then from the view of someone who believes life is good in the shape and form we now enjoy. "Were those our only alternatives," he writes, "we might be hard pressed to say which is more to be desired."
Meilaender solves this dilemma with a Christian perspective. While sympathizing with our love of life and desire for more, he ultimately hopes not for life extension but life divine.
Life without aging, he argues, "may … begin to look more destructive than creative. That is why the qualitatively different life for which Christian believers have hoped has not been thought to be in any sense simply an extension of this life—or the product of human ingenuity. As the gift of God, a new creation, it means being drawn into the life shared by Father, Son, and Spirit."
We naturally desire more of the life we enjoy on earth, but it should point us elsewhere. "That longing," Meilaender says in the afterword, "could not possibly come from more of this life … not because this life is not good, but because it cannot finally bring the completion needed for us truly to flourish."
Rob Moll is a CT editor at large and author of The Art of Dying: Living Fully into the Life to Come (InterVarsity Press).