When it comes to ending life, the politics are pretty black and white — arguments about abortion and euthanasia are generally divided along ideological lines. What conservatives see as God's work, the secular left views as a matter of personal choice. But these familiar positions may soon be upended as scientists unlock the secrets of aging and push the limits of the human lifespan.
Estimates vary greatly on exactly what this research means in terms of actual years lived. Some researchers believe that technological advances will let people routinely live past 120 — others, like Aubrey de Grey, a leading gerontologist, believe that the first person to live to 1,000 has likely already been born.
If the latter sounds like the ramblings of an overly optimistic professor, then consider the less sensational fact that every six years the average lifespan in America increases by one year; in other words, even without revolutionary anti-aging breakthroughs, people will soon be living longer than many thought possible just decades ago. In fact, the U.S. government estimates that by 2050, around 400,000 Americans will be over the age of 100.
While promising on the surface, these developments will almost certainly raise important and uncomfortable questions in regards to social class, medical ethics, and basic morality.
We have already started to see tentative battle lines being drawn on the issue. A 2013 Pew poll found that 56 percent of Republicans thought life-extension technology was "bad for society," compared to only 35 percent who said it was good. The same poll found Democrats more evenly spit: 49 percent to 46 percent.
On the surface it would seem counterintuitive that conservatives, who generally are against abortion and euthanasia, would not be supportive of artificially prolonging life. But in other ways, it makes perfect sense.
After all, the party's large evangelical base has a simple, sacred objection in Genesis 6:3: "My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years." Or consider Pope Benedict's 2010 homily in which he warned against the dangers of artificially extending human life: "Humanity would become extraordinarily old, [and] there would be no more room for youth. Capacity for innovation would die, and endless life would be no paradise."
Unsurprisingly, an extreme extension of human life by technological means is likely to be viewed as antithetical to Christian, and perhaps general Abrahamic, dogma. But it is perfectly in agreement with conservative lust for individual liberty, and it is at this intersection of faith and politics that the American right will be forced to prioritize its principles. God is important, and freedom only slightly less so.
For the other side of the political spectrum the quandary is slightly different, though equally severe. Science for the left, it seems, could prove to be a double-edged sword.
Love of logic may well turn to loathing as only the rich, at least initially, are able to afford the therapies necessary to significantly extend life. Even better (or worse, depending), is that this prolonged life will allow them to accrue ever greater wealth, further exacerbating the class warfare so often cited by today's populist politicians. The Vulcan salute of "live long and prosper" may soon be more fact than fiction.
But eventually these therapies will almost certainly become more affordable, as drugs and treatments are wont to do, and the Malthusian nightmare so often prophesied yet never realized may eventually materialize: At some point the Earth will have one too many people. It is not impossible to imagine a day when the largesse of the very rich (and very old) restricts the birth rate of those from more modest means.
And all of this on top of a countervailing trend that seems to look upon old age itself as immoral and selfish. This idea, which largely explains the growing acceptance of euthanasia in some European countries, was recently espoused by ObamaCare architect Ezekiel Emanuel in a piece penned for The Atlantic entitled "Why I Hope to Die at 75."
But here is a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world... [The Atlantic]
When examined closely, it's not so far removed from Benedict's sentiment.
And that's just it: What seem like strange bedfellows today could very well be tomorrow's allies. These therapies, if realized, will reside in politically uncharted territory, upending our hard and fast rules about who believes what.
One thing is certain, however: No matter how long humans live in the future, debates about the value of life itself will never die.