Most of the debate over the cultures of death and life is about process. The debate focuses on the technology available to determine how we prolong life and how and when we end it. The generations that went before us would not understand what we're talking about. Infant mortality, death from pregnancy and childbirth, routine disease and the infirmities of old age in an earlier time were perceived to be natural and inevitable, the inexorable will of God.
It's one of the terrible ironies of modern times - and a sobering caution - that extermination of physically healthy, able-bodied men, women and children was done by the state not in the backward provinces of a backwater satrapy, but in Germany, one of the most civilized and technologically advanced societies in the world.
In only 12 years, the Third Reich executed theories of eugenics that had circulated with considerable respectability in Europe and the United States. After the Nazis killed the disabled and the mentally ill in "hospitals," death camps swelled with Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and the politically suspect. New meaning was given to the slippery slope, blurring right and wrong, and it was only a short way from moral decline to a descent into horror.
The death of Pope John Paul II led many of different faiths and of no faith to acknowledge their debt to the Roman Catholic Church for holding on to absolutes that the rest of us can measure ourselves against. Holding the line is a theme that runs as well through the writing of Leon Kass, the chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics.
He worries that our culture is in danger of slipping down another slope by redefining the pursuit of happiness with biomedical technology. We all want to look younger, become stronger and healthier and live longer. Such goals are laudable when they "do no harm," but we must be wary of unintended consequences. Hidden harm becomes ever more difficult to discern. That's what Major League Baseball's steroid scandal was all about, the hidden harm in competitive sports that sends the wrong message to the young.
As we consider the impact of new technologies on the physical body, we must consider how these new technologies impinge on what we understand about our own humanity, dignity and ultimately our freedom.
"For bioethical dilemmas, though generated by novel developments in biomedical science and technology, are not themselves scientific or technological matters," writes Leon Kass in "Being Human," the book of readings from the President's Council. "They are human dilemmas - individual, familial, social, political and spiritual - confronted by human beings at various stages in the human lifespan, embedded in networks of meaning and relation, and informed by varying opinions and beliefs about better and worse, right and wrong, and how we live."
Rushing willy-nilly into the future without giving deep thought to the influences of biotechnology in the way we treat each other, and the impact it makes on social behavior, would be foolish indeed. What are the moral tradeoffs at the intersection of biology and biography? What does it mean for adult children when parents add decades to the average lifespan? This could prolong adolescence much farther into adulthood. (Some parents might tell you that this has already happened.) Leon Kass suggests that age enhancements of the old foster in the next generation "protracted youthfulness, hedonism, and sexual license."
Class warfare, such as it is, would give way to biotech battles. Older people who refuse to retire would block younger people from getting employment. "Instead of helping their juniors begin careers and families, tomorrow's rich oldsters will expend disposable income enhancing memories, senses, and immune systems, refashioning their flesh to ever higher levels of performance," writes Charles C. Mann, in the Atlantic magazine in a terrifying article entitled "The Coming Death Shortage." His thesis is wildly speculative, but it can't be ignored.
Leon Kass urges us to bring "wisdom-seeking reflection" to these issues. The future opens a postmodern Pandora's box, manipulating biotechnological innovation to clone spare body parts, design babies, select sex, rearrange genes, medicalize personality traits and re-engineer bodies to radically expand lifespans. The world witnessed the pope's suffering at the same time Terri Schiavo's food-and-water feeding tubes were removed, making us all acutely aware of the moral and spiritual debates we must confront to plumb the mystery of life and death. Such moral debates must continue, if we want to resist the slippery slope that would take us where none wants to go.