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

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

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

(Ravell Call, Deseret News)

If, as people age, their life can be more comfortable with less infirmity and frailty, then of course these inventions would be wonderful. 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. – Marie Hilliard

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.

"Sometimes people say that being pro-life or religious means 'doing everything possible' to extend life, but especially in Catholic theology that simply isn't true," Camosy said. "All one needs to do is look at the life of Jesus and the saints and martyrs to see that being a true Christian doesn't mean living one's life such that one lives as long as possible. The important thing is to be just and faithful — and live for others."

The Pew report cited former Pope Benedict XVI expressing concerns about significantly increased longevity. “Humanity would become extraordinarily old, (and) there would be no more room for youth," Benedict said in a Holy Saturday homily in 2010. "Capacity for innovation would die, and endless life would be no paradise.”

Varying viewpoints

No major religion has issued an official policy statement on the implications of radically extended life. In interviews, Pew researchers found the opinions of thinkers and leaders of various faith traditions on extending life ranging from cautious to optimistic.

One idea on which leaders of major religions agreed was that achieving immortality is off limits.

"There was resistance to living forever," Masci said. "Immortality was troubling to a lot of people."

Judiasm, Islam, Hinduism, Black Protestantism and Buddhism had overall favorable opinions of extended life therapies. "The goal in Judaism is to make the world better and (extended life) would allow us to do more of that,” Rabbi Barry Freundel, an ethicist and theologian who also leads an Orthodox Jewish congregation in Washington, D.C., told Pew.

Other Christian ethicists and theologians were generally circumspect in their views as they weighed what burdens and benefits prolonging life will have on the individual and on society in general.

Hilliard explained several factors a Catholic should consider when deciding on a medical procedure that would prolong one's life: the impact the side effects will have on the body, whether access to the treatment is available to all or just a privileged few and what the purpose is in prolonging life.

"Am I just delaying the ultimate good, which is our relationship with God?" she asked. Or, will I use the added time to meet "my obligations here of trying to provide for each other."

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' leadership handbook states that inevitable death should be seen as a blessing and part of eternal existence.

"Members should not feel obligated to extend mortal life by means that are unreasonable. These judgments are best made by family members after receiving wise and competent medical advice and seeking divine guidance through fasting and prayer."

While religious leaders had a range of views on how their followers would react to radical life extension therapy, Pew's survey shows little variation among faith groups in the general public. Even church attendance or belief in God had little correlation to a negative or positive view of life extension.

A belief in the afterlife did show some association with opinions about the impact on society of radically extending life. Among those who believe in life after death, 43 percent said radical life extension would be a good thing for society, while 49 percent said it would be a bad thing. But among those who do not believe in life after death, only 37 percent said radical life extension would be good for society, while 58 percent said it would be bad.

The religious group showing the most optimism about radical life extension was black Protestants. This was the only faith tradition in which more than half (54 percent) of adherents said extending life by decades would be a good thing. Nearly half (47 percent) of black Protestants would want such life extending therapy, while 46 percent of Hispanic Catholics showed that same sentiment, according to the Pew poll.

Historical perspective

The positive view of African-American Protestants of living long past 100 years comes as no surprise to Gwen Smith, a 73-year-old retired educator in Chicago who has often told her family and friends that she expects to live to 120 years of age.

She said simple advances like washing hands to avoid infection and illness to more sophisticated medications that have nearly eradicated some fatal diseases makes the possibility of living a fruitful life long past 100 years very real to her.

"I don’t look at it as an if," said Smith, an African-American who attends All Nations Community Church. "That’s my expectation, anyway."

She sees no conflict between living longer and her belief in an afterlife. "When you think about eternity being forever, what’s wrong with having more time down here?" she said.

Smith said she would use that extra time to teach her grandchildren and great-grandchildren about their past and victories over struggles that have allowed them to be where they are today. "Because it's a whole lot different from what it was in the 1960s until now, and that's not too long ago," said Smith, who recalls the name-calling and safety risks of walking home from an all-white high school in Chicago.

That historical perspective is how leaders of the National Baptist Convention explain the optimism African-Americans have toward research and treatments that would extend life by decades.

“We have gone from a sense of impossibility in the 20th century to one of possibility in the 21st," said the Rev. Charles Brown, a professor of Christian ethics at Payne Theological Seminary, "and I think we want as much chance as we can to participate in these new possibilities.”

Email: mbrown@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @deseretbrown