Ethical Considerations in Health Care Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology could extend our lives in a couple of ways: by helping to eradicate life-threatening diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes and by making it possible to repair damage to our bodies at the cellular level — a nano version of the Fountain of Youth.

Perhaps the most exciting possibility for prolonging our lives exists in the potential for repairing our bodies at the cellular level. For example, as people age, DNA in our cells is damaged by radiation or chemicals.

Nanotechnologists are developing techniques for building nanorobots that would be able to repair damaged DNA, allowing our cells to function optimally. The capability to repair DNA and other defective components in our cells goes beyond keeping us healthy: It has the potential to restore our bodies to a more youthful condition.

Cellular repair brings up several ethical questions. If nanotechnology helps us to live decades longer, what is the moral imperative for making such benefits available to all? If everybody could live hundreds of years, what would happen to our economy and society? Would only an elite few get such treatments, and what consequences would that have? If nobody ever died, would people have to stop having children to avoid overpopulation?

Several theories and opinions exist about the effect of life extension. A pro-life-extension article in the Journal of Medical Ethics (D. E. Cutas, March 2008) expresses one opinion about concerns related to overpopulation:

“Whether or not the overpopulation threat is realistic, arguments from overpopulation cannot ethically demand halting the quest for, nor access to, life-extension. The reason for this is that we have a right to life, which entitles us not to have a meaningful life denied to us against our will and which does not allow discrimination solely on the grounds of age.”

The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology concurred with this approach for slightly different reasons. It published results of its research into how molecular manufacturing, one area of nanotechnology that offers options for cellular repair, might help extend our lives. They summarized one finding that supported moving forward with the molecular manufacturing (MM) area of nanotechnology in this way:

“Overpopulation is a centuries-old problem. Traditionally, it’s been solved by infanticide, plague, and vicious war. With MM, we’ll have many decades to figure out better solutions. Smallpox vaccination and anesthesia were also said to be immoral. Today it’s obvious that that’s crazy. No one wants to be sick, and life extension is a natural result of health extension.”

But not everybody is at ease with us living hundreds of years. At the 10th Annual Congress of the International Association of Biomedical Gerontology, this point (attributed to John Harris) was made about the desirability of generational turnover:

“Is it preferable to have a group of people who live on and on, with very little population turnover, or to have a turnover of generations to bring in new ideas and new social developments — and if the latter, is that a reason to inhibit the development of life-extension?”

Clearly this direction of nanotechnology research raises some interesting hopes as well as several difficult questions.

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