against immortality: ethical objections to extending human life
against immortality: ethical objections to extending human life
a glut of research is currently underway to eliminate the effects of aging and prolong the human lifespan (pijnenburg and leget 585). while easing the suffering of the elderly is certainly a commendable pursuit, scientists should not attempt to extend human mortality beyond its natural limits. planet earth is already overpopulated as is, and the prolongation of life will only make it more so (ganivet 4981). additionally, the reality of climate change means that resources will become increasingly scarce in the future, potentially leading to wars and further deprivation (klare ix). finally, extended overpopulation would only force world governments to implement family planning initiatives that would be little more than draconian eugenics policies (levine 3).
the notion that the human species is overpopulated is now beyond debate. with nearly eight billion people inhabiting the earth, there are more humans alive now than at any other point in history (gavinet 4982). this overcrowding is straining the global ecology to a breaking point. as elias gavinet writes, "providing resources, especially food, for such a large number of people has inevitably led to significant environmental impacts, affecting every ecosystem of the planet” (4982). sustaining human life, therefore, is becoming increasingly difficult in the face of ongoing population spikes. aging humans with an unnaturally long lifespan would only worsen this scenario by placing even further demand on limited resources.
the most obvious solution to the problem is a reduction in overall population counts. decreasing the size of the human species means there will be less demand in the natural environment for food, shelter, and other resources (gavinet). yet there are currently only two ways to accomplish this objective. one is to allow the population to dwindle naturally, while the other is to cull it deliberately through selective slaughter. from an ethical perspective, the former is far preferable to the latter. scientists can therefore alleviate the pressures of overpopulation simply by pausing their efforts to extend human life beyond its natural span of years.
the problem of overpopulation becomes even direr when one considers the reality of climate change. as atmospheric temperatures rise to continue rising across the planet, oceanic water levels rise along with them (klane viii). indeed, most researchers anticipate that sizable portions of the human race will be dislocated over the coming decades as coastlines are submerged and inhabitable land is covered over (klare ix). these projections are already disastrous for the humans who will live to see them. expanding the human population by prolonging human life will only add to the difficulties.
the scenarios that can arise from the twin disasters of climate change and overpopulation are not difficult to imagine. some of the more troubling outcomes include severe food shortages, the loss of potable drinking water, increasing crime and violence, and widespread disease (klane viii). such catastrophes would be especially difficult on elderly populations, who would be less equipped than younger people to navigate these challenges. moreover, it would matter little whether they had reached an advanced age naturally or through scientific enhancement. the difficulties they faced would inevitably be the same.
finally, forced eugenics would likely result from human overcrowding. briefly defined, eugenics is the control of human reproduction in order to select for and against specific genetic attributes (levine 2). couched with the "desire to use . . . science to create a better world,” eugenics usually leads to highly coercive reproductive policies (levine 2). among other problems, the practice results in attempts to cull the numbers of distinct racial groups and to abort unborn children with specific health conditions (levine 72). governments that face overpopulation crises often resort to eugenics-based policies as a way of limiting family size (levine 47).
lest there be any doubt that overpopulation leads to ethnic and genetic culling, one should note that it already has. an effort in india to reduce the number of people with "undesirable mental and physical conditions,” for instance, led to roughly 12 million sterilizations in the mid-1970s. it was the poorer, darker-skinned segments of the country who were most affected (levine 102). china, too, has faced accusations of eugenics-based population control. the 1995 maternal and infant health care law, for instance, requires chinese citizens with "certain genetic diseases” to take "long-term contraceptive measures” or undergo sterilization prior to being married. (zhu and dong 48).
in societies where the natural lifespan has been artificially extended, the threat of overpopulation becomes much more likely. faced with dwindling resources and similar pressures, policymakers would have little choice but to step in and mandate some form of eugenically driven family planning law. yet such laws are often arbitrary, reflecting the personal biases of those who enact them, generally leading to some form of racial culling (levine 72-73).
the artificial extension of human life, then, is problematic because it raises the likelihood of severe overcrowding on a planet ill-prepared for such a scenario. under another set of conditions, the artificial extension of the human lifespan would be perfectly acceptable. it makes little sense, however, to expand population sizes when the result would be violence, starvation, and forced sterilization. ultimately, the ability to live longer is of little value if the quality of life is seriously degraded. before attempting to prolong human existence, then, researchers should first focus on the looming specters of overpopulation and climate change. to state the issue another way, our species cannot yet "morally afford to extend in human life” (pijnenburg and leget 586).
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