This is truly an odd question. It is a question about ethics, but one that operates at a level different from the ''how-to'' of ethical research practices discussed so far in this chapter. It has more to do with the fundamental values, direction, and purpose that underlie one's engagement in aging research. Such fundamental values influence one's choice of research areas and beliefs about the benefits of that research.
Much of aging research involves understanding and addressing the diseases and conditions that occur in an aging population. That sort of aging research is not ethically controversial and clearly not anti-aging; words like ''disease'' and ''disability'' already carry with them the implication that they should be controlled, avoided, or eradicated. Other research begins from the belief in an organism-wide process of aging, a unified process of senescence that is distinct from various specific processes of degeneration and must be dealt with as one would deal with disease. Discovering and controlling that process, just as one would research and address a disease, is ''age retardation'' (President's Council on Bioethics, 2003).
Age retardation seems to be a neutral or even a praiseworthy enterprise, but it has encountered significant objections with bases in ethics. Common to those objections is the belief that aging and mortality are so fundamental to human existence that, without them, we would lack something essential to human flourishing. ''Old age is an inevitable human condition, one that should not be defined as a medical problem to be conquered. ...'' (Joint International Research Group, 1994). Let us consider several of those objections.
First, significant increases in lifespan could create significant societal problems (Capron, 2004). A longer lifespan could result in a larger aging population and a longer period of decline for humans. Significant gains in age retardation could upset delicate social institutions related to health care, employment, retirement, marriage, etc. In so doing they could be destructive of the common good and create issues of distributive justice and inter-generational equity.
Second, the enticement of eternal youth is a powerful tool for taking unfair advantage of those who most fear aging, disability, and mortality. Our culture places great value on staying young. A promise of a miracle treatment can waste money, actually cause harm, and dissuade the gullible from doing what is best known to support one's chances of aging well—a healthy lifestyle.
Third, the pursuit of a cure for biological aging seems to ignore or deny anything positive about psychosocial aging. Human life is shaped by our understanding of our own finitude and imperfection. It underlies our perception of youth and of maturity, and of unique wisdom that does not come without years of life and the recognition that it will end. In short the quest for age retardation is an expression of ageism, as described by Butler (1969).
It can be plausibly argued that a researcher in basic science is essentially neutral on the age retardation issue. The scientist does not choose how the knowledge developed in the laboratory might be used by others. Unlocking the secrets of cellular aging might just as well support the efforts to prevent or retard cancer as to retard aging. The legitimacy of that perspective begins to fade along a continuum that begins with basic science and culminates in clinical trials. Translational science moves one closer to exploring specific applications of the knowledge discovered. Clinical research and trials are farther along the same continuum.
It can also be argued that, with informed planning, the calamities that age retardation could rain upon us could just as well be blessings. Most importantly, the recurring debates about the uses of new knowledge in society would suffer dramatically without the involvement of the scientists who create that knowledge. The rate of scientific progress frequently outruns the adjustment of social policy that must occur with the new knowledge. So it was with nuclear energy, the Internet, and, more recently, stem cell therapies. We cannot afford to repeat the experience with the significant new knowledge emerging in biogerontology. Without scientific input, social policy would still change, but just in time and in ill-informed and counterproductive ways.
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