Do You Deserve To Live?

Forbes , April 16, 2000

THE QUESTION IS A STAPLE OF POLITICAL TALK shows: "Should George W. Bush pick a pro-life running mate?" We all know what it means. The issue is abortion, not life in general, and the political challenge is to hold together a divided coalition. Nobody remarks on the implication that the alternative is a "pro-death" running mate.

After all, no respectable public figure is pro-death. Right?

Wrong. A pro-death coalition has been building for several years, crossing the traditional left-right divide. Its advocates aren't primarily interested in abortion or euthanasia, the traditional life-and-death political issues. They don't focus on the gray areas of personhood. They oppose the extension of healthy, active human life beyond its current limits. They are, quite literally, pro-death. Their viewpoint got some exposure recently, when the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania and the John F. Templeton Foundation gathered scientists, bioethicists and theologians for a conference called "Extended Life/Eternal Life."

Scientists at the conference reported on research to retard aging and restore the youthfulness of cells and organs. It's all very far from clinical practice, but promising. The goal isn't to prolong decrepitude but to enhance and extend the prime of life—by decades, maybe indefinitely.

That sounds great, if a tad optimistic. (There are some serious biomedical hurdles in the way.) Regular people look on such research with admiration and hope. "I say hooray for life and hooray for more of it," proclaimed Templeton Foundation director Charles Harper.

Not so the pro-death philosophers. "There is no known social good coming from the conquest of death," said Daniel Callahan, cofounder of the Hastings Center, the nation's leading bioethics think tank. Callahan, a political liberal, was echoed by the University of Chicago's Leon Kass, the leading neoconservative bioethicist. "The finitude of human life is a blessing for every individual whether he knows it or not," declared Kass.

Both Kass and Callahan have been arguing for years that open-ended medical progress is an affront to nature and humanity. Both promote static, closed definitions of medicine and health. Both find markets, technology and scientific research far too subservient to the individual desire for life, health and biological self-determination.

In his 1998 book False Hopes, Callahan laments that the spirit of contemporary medicine "is that of unlimited horizons, of infinite possibilities of ameliorating the human condition." He wants "sustainable" medicine that has "embraced finite and steady-state health goals and has limited aspirations for progress and technological innovation."

Kass, in his 1985 book Toward a More Natural Science, argues that "even the perfectly voluntary use of powers to prolong life ... carries dangers of degradation, depersonalization and general enfeeblement of soul." He attacks life extension, even by a decade or two. "The desire to prolong youthfulness," writes Kass, "is not only a childish desire to eat one's life and keep it; it is also an expression of a childish and narcissistic wish incompatible with devotion to posterity."

Politically, the pro-death philosophers are leaders without a constituency. Their most valuable allies at the moment are, ironically, pro-lifers who want to ban experiments on embryonic cells. Over the long term, their best friends may be on the left. Socializing medicine is the fastest way to end the market-driven private research that threatens to extend healthy human life. Asking whether George Bush will pick a "pro-life" running mate raises questions that go far beyond abortion—questions Al Gore also needs to answer.

As the Penn conference was convening, I was supposed to be interviewing Ronald Coase, the Nobel economist. He will be 90 this December. Coase is brilliant and witty, with a research agenda that would fill a 30-year-old's career. But he is frail and had to cancel the interview because of a broken vertebra.

Kass and Callahan speak in general, often poetic, terms. What they mean is that the world would be better off if Coase were already dead. I'd prefer him fit, with decades of productive life ahead of him. If that's childish, so be it.