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Living Forever: Some Pros And Cons

June 21, 1987|Mark Christensen

The possibilities are amazing. Even "limited immortality" that would add only 50 years or so to our lives would humble the effects of TV, birth control and the H-bomb in terms of current impact on our lives. And what if science were able to make the human body endlessly renewable, subject to death only by disease, accident, war or choice? Were it possible to halt the biological clock indefinitely at age 25, what would happen to, say, conventional marriage? Would even the happiest couples among us inevitably burn out on each other after a millennia or so of marital bliss? Ultimately--and rather quickly--the profile of the conventional family would cease to exist. Great-grandfather, grandfather, father and son--all looking as alike as a batch of young brothers--might occupy adjacent stools at the same singles bar, contemplating careers destined to go on . . . forever.

If humans stopped dying, it follows that--this planet being of finite size and resources--we would have to either stop or radically reduce the birth rate. Ultimately, a single generation might be literally frozen in place, blessed or doomed to go on indefinitely. Imagine. In show biz there would cease to be anything like the conventional "fresh new face," since, technically speaking, almost no one would ever be "new." On the other hand, certain talents would go on and on: endless black leather and whiplash smiles from a never-depleted Billy Idol; a little something new from J. D. Salinger every 85 years or so.

And what about the ethical questions raised by such a radical extension of life? Just the potential money involved with a Fountain of Youth elixir presents a dilemma. Says UC Irvine's Tom Johnson: "The financial rewards to the manufacturers would be gigantic. Even if the return was only a few cents a day from everyone who took the drug, its use would be so widespread that a pharmaceutical company could, potentially, realize $500 billion per year."

"Drugs with potentially high profit potential seem to get a disproportionate amount of our limited medical resources in terms of efforts put into research," says Dr. David Blake, chairman of the philosophy department at Loyola Marymount University and a member of the bio-ethics committees of two hospitals as well as the Los Angeles Bar Assn. "And it may do us little good to lengthen life, unless we can improve it as well." Which raises an important point: Would the first generation of such a drug make people forever young or, rather, forever old? For his part, Johnson sees no good in a world where "people might spend 50 years in a nursing home." On the other hand, Blake suggests: "It may actually be unethical not to pursue this kind of research, if it leads logically to better and fuller lives."

The Catholic Church, traditionally very conservative when it comes to matters of altering natural life patterns, has remarkably few qualms about what might be construed as Fountain of Youth research. "Many Biblical figures supposedly lived hundreds and hundreds of years," says Father Joseph Battaglia, a spokesman for the Los Angeles archdiocese, "so I doubt that the Church would object to attempts at lengthening human life span per se, so long as you were lengthening the natural process, but not ending it." But if the benefits of such a drug were to be made available to only a few, creating, in effect, a super-race, it "would raise serious ethical problems," says Father Battaglia, who concludes, "There are some things more fearful than death."

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