LONG-TERM BIOLOGICAL PROBLEMS
Many of the bioethics issues mentioned earlier are fashionable because of their technological novelty and seem likely to fade from public awareness relatively soon. What will mostly be left are underlying issues, such as access to health care and privacy, that apply both to new advances and to previous technology. However, there are several biological issues that are less romantic but may well be of more real importance. We will briefly mention these as a counterweight to topics such as human cloning.
Two centuries of advancing medical technology have increased life expectancy from the mid-thirties to the mid-seventies in the industrial nations. Infant mortality has dropped from nearly 50% to less than 1%. The result is a population explosion that is far more hazardous to the planetary environment that any high-tech tinkering with nature. Although antipollution measures and recycling may help slightly, the growth of the human population inevitably consumes more resources and encroaches on the natural world.
Increased life expectancy also means that the average age of the human population is increasing. The ever greater proportion of old and retired people is putting a major strain on the health care systems of the advanced nations. Predictions of the coming collapse of American Medicare or the British National Health System are heard with increasing frequency. These trends are exacerbated by the high cost of much novel medical technology. In the United States some 20% of expenditure is now in the general area of health care, and a vastly disproportionate amount is spent keeping old people alive for their last few months. Another factor is obesity. More and more the inhabitants of the advanced nations are getting fatter. This causes major health problems, many of which, like diabetes, need expensive long-term treatment.
Population growth means increased crowding. Modern transport has led to increased mobility. The combination of these two factors has resulted in the rapid spread of infections around the world. From major pandemics such as AIDS and tuberculosis down to lesser epidemics such as cholera and West Nile virus, there are ominous signs that infectious disease is making a comeback. At the same time we have the spread of genetic resistance: to antibiotics among bacteria, to antivirals among viruses, and to insecticides among the insects that carry many infections or ravage crops. On the one hand, fending off novel or resistant infections is becoming ever more expensive in the rich nations. On the other hand, the spread of lethal infections is counteracting the population explosion to some extent in the poorer nations. This is especially evident in Africa, where actual population declines are predicted, largely as a result of AIDS.
Listing problems tends to create a gloomy atmosphere. So let us end by saying that most problems today are the problems of success. Western science is responsible for today’s overpopulation precisely because it solved yesterday’s problems of famine and disease. We believe that technology will solve many of the new generation of problems. The foregoing list of issues should be viewed more as a to-do list than a forecast of gloom and doom.
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