The ethics of birth and death

I read two articles recently that really made me think about how we come into this life and how we leave it (or, perhaps more specifically, how we don’t leave it). These two bookends to life are inevitable, and nature has done a wonderful job of creating a balanced system–life in, life out. Predation, disease, disaster and a host of other things all conspire to keep life from running rampant, unchecked, consuming everything in its path. After all, at the end of the day there is only so much water, food, etc. to be had on this planet.

But human beings have a strong will to survive. We’re quite adept at manipulating our surroundings to keep those harbingers of death at bay. Just look at the leaps and bounds our lifespans have taken over the last century and a half. Look at how infant mortality has decreased. We’ve pioneered organ transplants to keep people alive. Look at the diseases we’ve eliminated, like smallpox. And we’re probably on the cusp of eliminating a whole host of other things–cancer, HIV, etc. Give us another generation or two and we’ll get there.

But there’s something that we can’t stop: aging and death. Or can we? Anti-aging is a huge area of research. People are afraid of dying. We have a built in mechanism that drives to survive and to persist, so of course the ultimate realization of that would be the defeat of death and aging. I recently read an article about how the first person to live to 150 has already been born. Indeed, research has apparently extended the lifespan of mice by 20%-40%. Extending human lifespans to 150 would pretty much be doubling them. Sounds far-fetched, but the results speak for themselves.

Indeed, we understand quite well what makes us age. Damage from free radicals. Telomeres that protect our DNA from damage. Mutation. It’s just that, up until recently, we didn’t really know how to stop those things. But now it appears we’re finding ways.

That could take many forms. It could be small, nano-scale machines that repair our DNA and cells. It could be genetic engineering (keeping those genes that regulate telomeres nice and healthy). Using stem cells to repair and rejuvenate damaged tissue. Or to create entirely new organs. Liver failure? Just send the lab a swab of DNA from your cheek and they’ll grow you a healthy new liver, stat.

Indeed, it would appear as if these methods in concert could significantly extend the human lifespan. This geneticist from Cambridge thinks one day humans will live to be a thousand years old. What would all of this mean for life, though? For the balance that nature has created?

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Ironically, solving death would benefit all of the characters Sean Bean plays

Well if people are living twice as long, it means they’ll consume twice as many resources. It means they’ll produce twice as much trash. Is that sustainable? No, most definitely not. Hell, it’s already barely sustainable as it stands (with some arguing that it’s not sustainable in the moment either). And sure, people will inevitably say, “Yeah, but nobody would want to be that old. They’d get bored, time would lose all meaning, etc.”

To which I say bullshit. It’s easy to claim such things when you’re alive and healthy. But when you’re on your deathbed? I’m sure a lot of people would reconsider those sentiments real quick. But what kind of Faustian bargain are making with life extension technology? Sure, we’ll live longer–but what effect will that have on the environment? On nature? The entire system we live in depends on things dying. And here we come, completely undoing that.

But what about the other end of the stream? We’ve talked a lot about death, but what of birth? That’s another way that you can influence population. You can talk about people leaving a population or people entering. And here, too, we have fiddled around with nature’s equation.

Some people can’t have children. They have some sort of congenital anomaly or traumatic injury that prevents them from reproducing. For people in that boat, I am truly sorry, and I do emphasize. Luckily for those people, though, science has solved the shit out of this problem. While expensive, there are many fertility treatments that now allow people who otherwise would not have been able to reproduce to do exactly that.

But is reproduction really a right? I’m not exactly prepared to say that it is or isn’t. I do know that there are already a lot of people in this world. And I do know that there are a lot of children who have already been born that need families. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with questioning or exploring the ramifications of fertility science.

But at the very least, one might say, nature has taken care of that for us to some extent. Because it built into humans a switch that, once flipped at a certain age, turns off that ability to reproduce. After menopause, a woman can no longer bear children. Problem solved, right? Nature built in a population control system, ensuring that women don’t just endlessly produce children.

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Well, not so fast, says science. This woman gave birth to a child at age 53…and then twins at age 65. Not to be outdone, this woman gave birth to a child at 70. These were natural births accomplished using IVF–in vitro fertilization. First, I have to question the ability of someone that old raising a child. I don’t care if that’s ageist, and I don’t care how much energy these people claim to have. Being 65–even if you’re in great shape–isn’t the same thing as being 25 or 35. 70 years old, raising a newborn? Get the fuck out of here. The human body wasn’t designed for that.

But beyond those implication, what about death? If you give birth at 70, you’ve probably got only about 10 more years left in you. So now you’re dead and leaving a 10 year old child to the world. How is that fair to your child? How is it fair to the other people left who now have to raise it? Who does that child go to? An aunt or uncle? Well those people are going to be just as old (if not older) than the parents. Maybe they can’t take care of a young child. Or maybe they don’t want to. You could give them to a sibling, I guess. But if your parents were 70 when you were born, your siblings may very well be in their 50’s. Again, not an ideal situation. And one that I think you could argue isn’t a very fair one, either, for any of the parties involved.

I get that both of these subjects are touchy issues. How do you deny life extension or fertility to people? How do you justify denying those things, while performing other life-saving procedures like organ transplants? I don’t have a good answer for that. But a line has to be drawn somewhere, I would think. We can’t just go around letting people reproduce indefinitely and then not die. That’s simply not a sustainable or sound practice. And quite frankly, it isn’t one that we’re set up for socially, economically, or politically. Can you imagine trying to make something like social security solvent for people who live to be 150? Or trying to make Britain’s National Health Service work for people who live to 150?

Nature is all about balance. Somewhere in these issues there is a point of balance. Does that mean outright banning technologies? Does it mean using a lottery system? Does it mean only allowing people who can afford it do it? Who gets to decide? How do they make those choices? Until we can adequately define the boundaries or science and nature, I am inherently wary and skeptical of these advances.

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