Whether living longer is good or bad was the subject of a conference of scientists, social philosophers and theologians in Philadelphia recently. I hadn't realized there was any question about it. I was surprised at how many people attending didn't approve of efforts being made by science and medicine to prolong our lives.
"The finitude of human life is a blessing for every individual whether he knows it or not," said Dr. Leon Kass, of the University of Chicago. I know death is not a blessing. It may be good in Dr. Kass' mind, but it doesn't appeal to me at all. He's 60 years old. I'd like to hear him say he doesn't favor longer life when he's 80. Life may seem long to someone young looking at the vast expanse of years ahead, but it looks short to anyone my age looking back.
"Where did it all go?" is the question people my age ask. "How did I get so old so quick?" At age 80, I'm clearly not ready to go. Life is good and I've never enjoyed my work, my friends and my family more.
Some of the professional religious people at the conference argued that a person should be able to satisfy all his ambitions in a life 80 years long. I'm not dissatisfied with my accomplishments, but I'm still ambitious and still have dreams of doing a lot more.
No one wants to live to be very old with a mind and body that are used up and no longer anything like what they once were. Some scientists seem to think they can lengthen life in a good and natural way that would provide 50 or 100 more healthy and happy years.
Scientists say there are two ways that life might be extended. One would be to find a cure for the diseases that kill us, like cancer, and the other would be to work on the basic process by which aging takes place in the human body and change that.
If they can work it out so that human beings regularly live to be 150 or 200 years old, I hope they do it soon because I'd like to get in on it. My old college roommate used to worry that they'd find a cure for cancer the day after he died of it, and I feel the same about a longer life. I don't want them to discover how to do it after I'm gone.
Religious leaders who favor the death penalty but oppose a person's right to have a doctor-assisted suicide when they have a painful and incurable disease have a problem with logic, it seems to me. They often take the position that a doctor-assisted death is interfering with God's will. Some people at the conference took the position that lengthening life is also circumventing the will of God.
None of those theological arguments make sense to me because you could just as easily say that taking an aspirin or getting treatment from a doctor to cure a disease is interfering with God's will.
The fact is that whether theologians think it's right or not, whether they want it to happen or not, we'll find a way to live longer. It's inevitable that science will extend the useful life of man and, to me, it's a great thing.
As soon as you hear about a lot of people who'd prefer to die young, let me know. There aren't many of them, and if life wasn't so wonderful we wouldn't all cling so desperately to the last days of it.
(This classic column was originally published March 11, 2000.)
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