Anti-Aging Research: Ethical and Religious Perspectives

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The Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon was looking for the Fountain of Youth when he sailed across the Atlantic to the New World, and antiaging researchers continue the perennial quest (Van Tassel). It is also a quest that has attracted numerous venture capitalists and is the focus of a myriad of biotechnology companies. A definitional distinction is necessary here. The life expectancy of any species is the average length of life for all members of the species taken together. Human life expectancy in modern industrialized countries is close to eighty. The life span of any species is the longest period that any single member of that species has lived. Thus, the human life span is thought to be 120 to 125.

Antiaging researchers challenge the notion of a so-called natural life span as they learn more about the genetic mechanisms of cell aging and eventually intervene (Banks and Fossel; Fossel, 1998). Some argue that the human life span might be radically extended in the future, perhaps to several centuries. Yet other scientists, especially Leonard Hayflick, are skeptical of the empirical possibility of radical life extension. The claims of antiaging researchers have been over-stated, he argues. Survival to the age of reproductive success is the law of evolution, after which cellular and physiological disorder accelerate. Hayflick set the absolute maximum of the human life span at about 120 years, and predicts modest increase in life expectancy (perhaps to eighty-two years by the year 2050.) Aging, Hayflick contends, is not a disease and cannot be over-come. Debate over the possibility of radical life span extension continues.

Cautious ethical optimism

The more optimistic ethical view is that there is no reason to be especially critical of the idea of extended lives, so long as a number of conditions can be met regarding health, including intact memory and cognition. There is in principle no religious or philosophical ethical proscription against extension of the human life span consistent with reasonable health. But a coherent first goal might be the extension of human life into the late eighties without the current plague of Alzheimer's disease, which afflicts an estimated 40 percent of those age eighty-five. Few people would welcome the protraction of such terrible morbidity in our efforts to extend life (Post). If science makes major progress against the progressive, irreversible, and chronic debilitating diseases of old ageespecially diseases of neurodegenerationthen further developments in life extension might be welcomed by some.

Would it not be interesting to have Albert Einstein still available to students at 150 years of age? Would it not be of value to have a person of lucid mind who could tell historians directly about life in colonial America? If a person loves life and will be happy if it can be extended, then there is really no obvious reason for ethical criticism, or so the argument goes.

Rabbi Neil Gillman presents one Jewish perspective that is surely provocative, yet also quite coherent. Gillman argues that according to Judaism, there is nothing redemptive in death, which really is the enemy of life. Embodied life is inherently good and precious in God's eyes. Death is a chaotic force, argues Gillman, and Judaism affirms efforts to immortalize our bodily lives. Other rabbis, however, take a less sanguine view of radical life extension, pointing out the degree of wisdom in the natural intergenerational flow of life within society.

There has been a place for antiaging research and the goal of radical life extension in the history of science from the late 1890s. J. B. S. Haldane, the great Oxford University biologist, affirmed radical life extension in the 1930s with the publication of Possible Worlds, realizing that the implications of the then nascent biological revolution were immense as the species learns of the malleability of nature and of human nature. Yet this was precisely the future against which the Oxford theologian C. S. Lewis wrote in 1944. Thus, it is valuable to turn now to those who are most articulate and thoughtful in their warnings about the brave new world of antiaging and radical life extension, should it be a real possibility.

The goodness of natural limits

Are critics unnecessarily importing "moral" concerns (i.e., "moralizing") into the antiaging field? Where are ethical and theological proscriptions legitimate, if at all?

The bioethical critics of antiaging research and radical life extension lament the fact that "we" are unable to accept death, that we rage against it to the point of wishing to overcome it with emergent technological sophistication. Bioethicist Daniel Callahan argues that we must learn to accept the idea of a "natural life span," one that might reach its conclusion sometime around age eighty, for then surely we have more or less had adequate time to enjoy our creative capacities, raise children, and experience what life has to offer. Leon Kass, with great eloquence and depth, highlights the importance of life-span limits in making room for new generations who deserve to take their rightful place in the world. Theologians speak meaningfully about aging and death as natural solutions to the human problem of solipsismthat is, our human tendency to see ourselves as the center of the universe and to value others only as they contribute to our own agendas "in orbit around ourselves." Aging and death encourage within us an "ontological humility." After all, the argument concludes, it is a blessing to die because life becomes a dreary business, and its brevity allows us to value the time that we have.


So, is the problem with our culture that we are unable to infuse decay, dependency, and death with moral and spiritual value? Or should we strive against morbidity, decline, and death with scientific, theological, and ethical vigor?

With regard to western Christianity, Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica I, question 97, article 1) asked "Whether in the State of Innocence Man Would Have Been Immortal?" He responded by citing St. Paul (Romans 5:12, "By sin death came into the world.") and asserted that before sin the body was "incorruptable," that is, immortal.

It should come as no surprise that the great Renaissance Christian humanists extolled the advent of the scientific assault on aging and mortality, providing the original mandate of modern antiaging science. It therefore seems that the Christian tradition, like Judaism, is complex and ambivalent in its attitude toward so-called acceptable dying.

Thus, we must be careful not to overstate the religious and ethical arguments either for or against continued human life-span extension, nor prematurely reach uninformed or unimaginative closure on the issue. The future will be different from the present, but by how much? And how much will biological power over longevity lead us away from the wisdom of nature and human nature toward a dystopian vision of "fabricated man" in which the species is divided into those to whom the technology of radical life extension is available and those of a lower class to whom such technology is unavailable? How will intergenerational relations and justice between the generations be affected? What sort of character would one expect to find in people who grasp at radical life extension, rather than accepting the naturalness of dying within the current life span?

No issue of human "enhancement" is more pointed both ethically and religiously than the potential application of radical antiaging technologies. The issue is only further complicated by the libertarian and entrepreneurial interests that would make such enhancement available according to one's ability to pay, by the potential for disturbing class division, and by the potential protraction of morbidity and even of severe dysfunction. The issue of human cloning appears relatively minor in comparison.

Stephen G. Post

See also Cellular Aging; Genetics; Life Span Extension; Theories of Biological Aging: DNA Damage; Theories of Biological Aging: Error Catastrophe.


Banks, D. A., and Fossel, M. "Telomeres, Cancer, and Aging." Journal of the American Medical Association 278 (1997): 13451348.

Callahan, D. Setting Limits: Medical Goals in an Aging Society. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987.

Fossel, M. "Telomerase and the Aging Cell." Journal of the American Medical Association 279 (1998): 17321735.

Gillman, N. "Theological Perspective." Unpublished paper from the conference "Extended Life, Eternal Life: Biotechnological 'Immortalization'Its Scientific Basis, Future Prospects, and Ethical and Theological Significance." (University of Pennsylvania, 56 March 2000).

Haldane, J. B. S. Possible Worlds. Reprint. New York: Transactions Publications, 2000.

Hayflick, L. How and Why We Age. New York: Ballantine Books, 1994.

Kass, L. Toward a More Natural Science: Biology and Human Affairs. New York: Free Press, 1985.

Lewis, C. S. The Abolition of Man. Reprint. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Post, S. G. The Moral Challenge of Alzheimer Disease: Ethical Issues from Diagnosis to Dying. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

Van Tassel, D. D., ed. Aging and the Completion of Being. Philadelphia, Pa.: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 1979.

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Anti-Aging Research: Ethical and Religious Perspectives

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