Date: July 1st, 2000
Critics of aging research are missing the point.
Here is a sampling of what they are saying:
- A recent U.S. News & World Report article quoted Audrey Chapman, director of science and human rights at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as saying, "It is evil to focus energy on trying to live longer than 80 years when many poor people now don't live past 40."
- The Rev. Richard J. Neuhaus of the Institute of Religion and Public Life criticized what he called "the search for immortality" as "a pagan and sub-Christian quest" driven by the "essentially amoral and mindless dynamic of the technological imperative joined to an ignoble fear of death."
- Dr. Daniel Callahan, a biomedical ethicist at the Hastings Center in New York, said, "We can't ban this research, but we can make it socially despicable. Just like nuclear testing, we can decide that we don't want it." Dr. Callahan has also said (in The New England Journal of Medicine, March 2, 2000) that people at age 65 have lived long enough to experience the typical range of human possibilities and aspirations: to work, to learn, to love, to procreate, and to see one's children grow up and become independent adults. He does not believe that any special effort should be made to help them live longer. In fact, he called for a reduction of the National Institutes of Health budget for cancer research.
It is important to point out that not all ethicists and theologians agree with the naysayers. Rabbi Neil Gillman of the Jewish Theological Seminary said: "God is life itself, and we are not only justified, but we are obligated to do everything we can to extend life." Dr. Ronald Cole-Turner of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary said that a longer life is desirable because it would focus attention on the meaning of life and "offer an opportunity for the blossoming of our humanity."
Although our critics are in the minority at the moment, we can't afford to dismiss their comments as harmless. Many of these people are in powerful positions. Their titles give them ready access to the news media and to health policy makers, and they are capable of stirring up irrational fear in society at large. They do pose a real threat to the pursuit of medical knowledge - knowledge that might help many millions of people live healthy and vital lives right to the end, avoiding or postponing devastating and costly diseases like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and cancer.
Setting the Record Straight
Groups like the Alliance for Aging Research are not on an endless quest to cheat death at all costs. We are not trying to drain resources away from education, neighborhood improvement and other societal needs. We are working to extend the healthy years of life so that older Americans can continue to function in a positive way and not become a drain on society. We want to reduce or eliminate the need for old, sick people to languish in nursing homes and other institutions. This is not a mindless search for the Fountain of Youth, but a legitimate, humane attempt to relieve human suffering, provide fuller lives for people, and ultimately benefit society as a whole.
The point is, we already have many people living to age 70, 80, 90 and beyond. How much better it would be if more of them could remain active, contributing members of society, fending for themselves and seeking their dreams, whatever they may be. How much more humane it would be if they could enjoy life more and not live under the shadow of frailty, memory loss and the strain of multiple chronic diseases.
Throughout history, people have contributed great things to society in their later years. Mahatma Gandhi, the great Indian leader and peacemaker, was 77 when hesuccessfully completed negotiations for India's independence from Britain. Ernst Alexanderson was 77 when he was awarded his 321st patent for the color television receiver he developed for RCA. And Frank Lloyd Wright, the internationally recognized American architect, designed the famous Fallingwater house at age 69 and the Guggenheim Museum at 91.
While it is not possible for everyone to achieve this level of greatness, we all have the potential to make significant contributions within our families and communities no matter what our age. And many elderly people are doing just that, fulfilling urgent societal needs for quality child care and volunteer support in churches, hospitals, schools and other institutions. In fact, it has been estimated that it would take three million paid caregivers, working full time, to provide the same assistance to sick and disabled people that is currently being provided by older volunteers.
Is it selfish and immoral to want to continue these activities? We don't think so.
Please Join Us
The Alliance for Aging Research is on the front lines of this debate — writing, speaking and talking to members of Congress — trying to bring some rational understanding of the benefits of biomedical research and the serious consequences of choking off its potential.
We believe that the only way we'll find cures for diseases like Alzheimer's and cancer is to look at fundamental biological processes. New medicines that will render these diseases as obsolete as polio will come only through the manipulation of life at the level of cells and genes. We acknowledge that this is going to raise some fears. And, yes, we need to take our ethical responsibilities seriously and think hard about how we apply scientific findings. But to slow or frustrate good science out of fear is to condemn millions of people to illness that they otherwise could avoid.
Please join us in spreading the word. You can help by sharing this article with a friend and letting us know your views.