Technology may be able to extend life span, but humans must choose how to live it

www.bethyam.orgOctober 12, 2013 

There is an old Hebrew expression for wishing someone a long life: "Ad Meah V'es-rim." It means you should live to be one hundred and twenty years old.

The number refers to the final age of Moses before God called him to his destiny. From Deuteronomy chapter 34: "So Moses died there in the land of Moab...And Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died; his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated."

How did he live such a long life? It surely wasn't through modern means of extending life, such as severe restriction of caloric intake, gene therapy, stem cell transplant or drug therapies. These are just a few of the techniques being discussed and experimented with in scientific circles -- part of an exciting new field of medical research that focuses on radical life extension.

A recent paper published by the Pew Research Foundation, "To Count Our Days: The Scientific and Ethical Dimensions of Radical Life Extension," discusses the medical and technological advances in this burgeoning field. Several scientific disciplines are demonstrating the possibility that -- within the next fifty years -- the human life span will increase by several decades. Futurists predict that one day human beings will even transcend biological science and transport their consciousness into machines, living for even longer periods of time. There is no end to the imagination of what might become of the human species in the centuries and millennia to come.

The implications -- even in the short run -- are enormous. Just think: If we were able to extend within three decades the average life span from today's 78 to 100, what would be the economic impact upon jobs, Medicare and Social Security? How would our understanding about marriage and child rearing change?

Then, there's the religious implications of altering our life patterns. Would we be living in a world that would actually challenge the Creator's laws that humans are finite?

What about the ethical challenges that would arise were such technology to be unleashed into the free market? Imagine a time in the not-so-distant future when technology enables our society to rewire a human nervous system or clone, harvest and implant bones and organs simultaneously into one person. But only the very rich could afford these gifts of human ingenuity. Businesses and government would end up playing the role of God, deciding who shall live or die. It comes down to the Golden Rule: Those with the gold, rule.

Google formed last month a new company, Calico, that aims to cure disease by harnessing the brilliance of the human mind through computer technology. It will be interesting to see whether they -- and similar companies -- hire ethicists to ask these kinds of questions, ones that religious leaders and the public will inevitably ask.

The Pew Center's study includes interviews with religious leaders from all the major religions in America. No clergy cited any particular religious law that would oppose radical life extension technology. All of them spoke favorably of the great possibilities of curing diseases such as cancer and dementia.

Yet, there is no limit to the questions. Does achieving longevity equal greater wisdom? Will longevity enable us to prepare for death and fear it less? Will the output of radical life extension represent modern humankind's Tower of Babel? If the average life span is 100, will we as a species better value of human life and the environment -- of which we are supposed to be stewards, as it is written in Genesis?

The 20th century has proven that modern science can improve human life. At the same time, we have seen many examples of how humans have used technology to destroy human, animal and other forms of life. We would be making a huge mistake if we ignore these sorts of ethical challenges.

The real is issue is what we do with the blessing of so many years. Do we use these years wisely? The prophet Isaiah had a warning for us. In his vision of the future redemption of Israel, he writes in verse 65:20: "No more shall there be in It an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days, for the young man shall die a hundred years old, and the sinner a hundred years old shall he be accursed."

Life is indeed sacred if we believe in God. But how we treat all life forms -- including our own -- will be the ultimate metric to determine whether we are worthy of having more years to enjoy this existence. Radical life extension is only one piece of the mystery. The moral quality of our lives will determine whether the extended time this awesome scientific technology could grant will have the meaning and value we hope for.

Columnist Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter, @rabbibloom.

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