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The Classist Implications of Life Extension Science

The life expectancy gap between rich and poor is already wide, but recent advances in biotechnology should force us to thoughtfully consider the ethics of making it even wider.

By Rick Paulas


(Photo: zeissmicro/Flickr)

Forget 40 being the new 30. For awhile now, 80 has been the new 40.

As far back as data goes, a human’s life expectancy hovered right around 40 years, no matter where they lived. But that changed around 1900, when advances in medicine, technology, and communication gradually increased the average life expectancy to its current average of roughly 80 years in First World countries.

Japan, Australia, and Canada have average life expectancies above 80 years old — the United States is ranked 43rd with an expectancy of 79.68 years — but that’s not the same story for the world’s poorest countries. Ethiopia’s life expectancy is 64.8 years, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s is 60, and Malawi’s, the poorest country in the world according to gross domestic product per capita, is 58.3 years.

The life expectancy gap between America’s richest 1 percent and its poorest 1 percent is currently slightly over 14 years.

In the First World, prosthetic limbs and mechanical hearts are standard. This year, doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital, which has a research budget of more than $750 million per year, performed the first penis transplant. Scientists working to win the Palo Alto Longevity Prize believe they’ll soon push the human lifespan past 120 years by growing artificial organs, tinkering with DNA, cloning, working with stem cells, and putting nanotechnology in our bloodstream.

The life expectancy gap between America’s richest 1 percent and its poorest 1 percent is currently slightly over 14 years. Advances in biotechnology may only widen that gap.

We seem to be hesitant about the prospect. In June, Pew asked Americans how they feel about potential biomedical techniques, including gene editing to provide “a lifetime with much reduced risk of serious disease,” brain chip implants for “a much improved ability to concentrate and process information,” and synthetic blood transfusions to give people “greater speed, strength, and stamina.” The quoted portions are important, as only positive outcomes were mentioned. Yet, still, 68 percent of Americans claimed to be worried about gene editing, 69 percent about chip implants, and 63 percent about synthetic blood transfusions.

The biggest divide between positive and negative outlooks came from those who identify themselves as religious. “There’s a divide that splits very strongly across religiosity lines,” says Cary Funk, one of the study’s authors. “People who are higher in religious commitment tended to see these enhancements as crossing a line, whereas those who did not have religious commitment did not.”

But the proposed procedures also generated concerns about inequity. A majority of Americans surveyed believe that those who obtain the techniques would “feel superior” to those who don’t. In addition, 73 percent of respondents worry that the availability of brain chips will increase inequality because they will “only be able to be obtained by the wealthy.” Perhaps these hesitations mean it’s time to re-think the direction of our life extension science.

The argument for life extension is obvious: People get to live longer and, theoretically, healthier lives. And the argument for extension techniques being used by the rich is also obvious: They can afford it and the poor can’t. (They’re also kind of strange about how they go about doing it.) But as a society, we need to consider the moral implications of a world where the lifespans of the rich and poor are so dramatically different.

A majority of Americans surveyed believe that those who obtain the techniques would “feel superior” to those who don’t.

In 2007, Martien Pijnenburg and Carlo Leget tackled “three arguments against extending the human lifespan” in a paper for the Journal of Medical Ethics. Their first argument regarded the moral problem of “unequal death”—that is, the different realities between First and Third World countries when it comes to life extension. “Our efforts to prolong life ought not to be separated from the more fundamental questions relating to integrity,” they concluded, “given the problem of unequal death, can we morally afford to invest in research to extend life?”

In other words, what has more value: high-priced research that allows a certain segment of the population to live longer? Or aiming budgets at trying to raise everyone’s lifespan by focusing on clean water, eliminating diseases, and finding cheaper ways to deliver life-saving surgeries to the poor?

Pijnenburg and Leget conclude their paper with a contemplation of “the meaning of life” in a world where life never ends. “As we reflect on the relation between time and experience, there is an interesting and important paradox to be observed: the more life is experienced as meaningful, the less we are aware of time,” they write. “In activities that constitute human happiness there seem to be no time and space, no subject and object. From this one may infer that what we basically seek as human beings is not more time to live, but meaningful experiences.”

Trying to add a few extra years to the lives of the rich, then, is not only morally wrong. Ultimately, it’s a waste of time.