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Living long: Religious thinkers ponder the ethical, theological implications of delaying death

Published: Friday, Aug. 9 2013 10:50 p.m. MDT

Maxine T. Grimm, age 99, poses for a photo in her home in Tooele, Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013.

(Ravell Call, Deseret News)

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For millennia, religion has helped people cope with mortality, teaching that death is not something to fear but is a meaningful step in an eternal journey.

During that same time, advances in medicine, nutrition and sanitation have pushed average from 43 years in 1500 in Great Britain to 67 years in 2010 worldwide — and as many as 89 years in Monaco in 2013, according to the website news-medical.net.

Today, as researchers continue to work on ways to extend life and alleviate the suffering of aging, theologians and ethicists are also pondering the implications of delaying death and extending a lifetime to as long as 120 years — something scientists say is well within the realm of possibility.

"If, as people age, their life can be more comfortable with less infirmity and frailty, then of course these inventions would be wonderful," said Marie Hilliard, director of bioethics and public policy at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. "But if the ultimate goal is to stay on this earth forever, that’s inconsistent with my understanding of what I am made for and that's to enjoy eternity with my creator."

Most Americans of various Christian denominations appear to feel the same way, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project. Majorities of 60 percent or more among various religious traditions said medical advances that prolong life are generally good. But that support drops to the 30 and 40 percent range for most believers when asked if the possibility of radical life extension that would enable someone to live as long as 120 years is a good thing.

The reluctance of religious people to embrace the idea of extending life by several decades may or may not change if radical life extension becomes a reality. But they will likely look to their faith leaders for guidance on how to respond to the ramifications of living many years longer than people do today.

"Whether dramatically extending life would lead to a golden age or a nightmarish dystopia is, at this point, unknown," wrote Pew senior researcher David Masci in a report accompanying the survey. "It is more certain that life extension, if it came to pass, would challenge and in some cases alter many social, political and religious norms. And our most enduring institutions, especially religious institutions, would be called upon to guide people through the moral implications of this new reality."

Future thinking

The rationale for doing the survey, the Pew report explained, was that for the first time in human history, experts believe humankind may be at the "threshold of a new aging paradigm, one that replaces the generally accepted limits of human life with more open-ended possibilities."

Some scientists speculate that some treatments being talked about could extend average life spans up to 120 years old.

And while even the most optimistic researchers told Pew that none of the radical remedies to aging is at this point a reality, ethicists and religious leaders are paying attention and contemplating how such medical breakthroughs should be received within the framework of their beliefs and practices.

"We didn't shock (the scholars) we contacted," said Masci. "With a few exceptions, everyone was thinking about it … and some have already written about it."

That's because whether and how to extend someone's life through intensive medical care and other technology are classic questions in bioethics, said Charles Camosy, a bioethicist and assistant professor at Fordam University, a Catholic school in New York.

And while nearly all the religion scholars interviewed by Pew agreed relieving the suffering and pain associated with aging is a good thing, living longer isn't universally viewed as a benefit to the individual or society as a whole.

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