In praise of longevity
Philosopher Christine Overall says a longer life is a better life
In a society preoccupied with eternal youth, probing the deeper and sometimes darker questions surrounding aging, death and dying isn't something many of us like to do. But as human life spans increase thanks to the help of modern medicine and technology, we are living longer than ever before and, as a result, are faced with increasingly complex moral and social issues surrounding our own longevity.
Feminist philosopher Christine Overall hasn't shied away from thinking about these issues. She's spent years examining our perceptions and stereotypes surrounding aging and death and how they affect us, both as individuals and as a society. As a child she was first struck by the unfairness of death when, with a sense of inevitability, she became aware that her grandparents would one day die and that most likely their deaths would occur before her own. She found that realization devastating. In her teens, she decided she wanted to live to 140, far beyond the longest documented life, which, as far as Dr. Overall knows, is age 122.
In her latest book, Aging, Death, and Human Longevity: A Philosophical Inquiry (University of California Press, 2003), which continues to garner awards, Dr. Overall takes a philosophical look at whether a longer life is a good thing in itself. Should we want to live longer? she asks. And if we do, is increasing human life a good thing for society?
In weighing the benefits and the risks of prolonging life, Dr. Overall concludes that, in general, living a longer life is better and that the length of one's life does matter. Its duration can make a difference in the quality and value of that life.
"Given this is the only life we get, as far as we can tell . . . then we should treasure it, and we are entirely justified in trying to and wanting to have a longer life," she says, during a relaxed yet animated interview in the living room of the flat she's renting in downtown Halifax. Dr. Overall left her teaching job at Queen's University for the academic year to take up the Nancy's Chair in Women's Studies at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, until the end of June.
Dr. Overall isn't talking about sustaining life always or at any cost, such as those cases where it means keeping someone breathing only by means of expensive medical apparatus. "I don't want to say everyone must stay alive, everyone must live to 90 whether they want to or not. What would be the point of that?" she says.
|he longevity debate, says Christine Overall, pits “apologists” against “prolongevists.” Photo: Bernard Clark
"I'm not talking about merely going on breathing. I'm talking about being able to go on enjoying life, experiencing life, carrying out one's projects," she adds. In her book, which won the Royal Society of Canada's Abbyann D. Lynch Medal in Bioethics in 2006 and the Canadian Philosophical Association's Book Prize the previous year, Dr. Overall looks at two very different cultural perspectives on human longevity. The first is apologism. Apologists, she explains, take the view that human life is long enough already and that we shouldn't make special efforts to make it any longer. According to this theory, the natural rhythm of life is that we are born, mature and die, and therefore we should accept this cycle. On the other side are prolongevists like Dr. Overall. In their view, a longer life, in general, is a better life, and collectively we should help people live longer.
People in the developed world are already living longer, thanks to better nutrition, medicine and technologies that make our lives safer and easier. Fewer children die in infancy, fewer women die in childbirth and fewer men die on the job. Yet in Canada, discrepancies in life expectancies still exist. For example, aboriginal Canadians have the lowest life expectancy in Canada, and poor people are more likely to die younger. "In general," she says, "the wealthier and better educated you are the longer you will live."
On average, Canadian men and women are now living into their 80s. But Dr. Overall argues that we shouldn't assume this is the optimum life expectancy. "There are people in their 90s who are living highly fulfilling lives," she says. Part of the impetus for writing her book was her close relationship with her grandparents, who lived into their 90s. "Even though they were long lived, I wished they could have lived longer," she says.
Since we're living longer, healthier lives, it makes sense that elderly people contribute greatly to society. The majority of the country's volunteers, she points out, are over age 65. But misconceptions lead people to believe that most elderly Canadians are sick and confined to nursing homes.
Stereotyping the elderly as burdensome is not only wrong but also harmful, because it contributes to what Dr. Overall sees as society's widespread opposition to prolonging human life. "I'm highly critical of those bioethicists who have argued that it's morally wrong to seek to extend life. I think not only is that a mistake, because it fails to recognize the potential richness of the last part of life, but it also is dangerous and contributes to a kind of ageism and ableism," she says, referring to discrimination based on age, especially prejudice against the elderly, and discrimination in favour of the able-bodied.
Following that argument leads some to wrongly believe that society should withdraw health-care services from the elderly to put toward the young, observes Dr. Overall. "The notion that elderly people are draining our health-care resources or are greedily drawing upon resources that they are not entitled to is an expression of the kind of prejudice that apologism can foster."
The error is to see our social resources as a matter of the young versus the old. "That is a mistaken dichotomy," she says. "The young eventually become the old" and will one day need the same health-care resources. The young also have an intimate relationship with the old, who are their parents and grandparents, and therefore have a personal interest in their well-being.
Inevitably, Dr. Overall's book raises questions about the right to die and assisted suicide. While she is adamant that her book is not about these issues, she isn't shy to talk about some of the philosophical and moral concerns they raise.
"For some people it may come to a point where it is entirely reasonable to want to end their life," she says. But she cautions against creating a "facilitative environment" in which those who are not ready to die feel as though death is inevitable and that they should end their lives. She criticizes philosophers like John Hardwig who think that an individual may have a duty to die when the burden of caring for them seriously compromises the lives of those who love them.
Dr. Hardwig, a philosophy professor at the University of Tennessee, says that an individual is not the only person who will be affected by decisions over whether they live or die. When deciding whether to go on living, people should not only consider themselves, he argues; they should also consider their family and loved ones.
This attitude, says Dr. Overall, can lead people to feel they are morally wrong if they fail to act. "People should have the right to decide when to die, which means that we should not be putting pressure on them to die soon nor should we be putting pressure on them to stay alive at a point where life has lost all value for them."
While ultimately it is the individual who decides whether to end his or her life, it can't be ignored that this person lives in a social context which influences that decision. "If we're creating social conditions that make life less valuable, then that is a social problem and not the problem of the individual," says Dr. Overall. "If I am elderly and don't have a lot of access to health care or social supports, maybe it looks inevitable that I have no choice but to kill myself."
In the end, living a longer life comes down to both the individual and society. "You don't get one without the other," she says. You can't expect a woman living by herself without any social supports to live to age 90. On the other hand, if someone blessed with the genetic makeup to live a long life is also an alcoholic and a smoker, then that person can't expect to live very long, either.
Dr. Overall doesn't claim to have all the answers. What she isn't prescribing is a future of high-tech medical interventions to keep people alive, unless we as a society are prepared to take care not only of ourselves, but also of each other. We can start, she says, by ensuring people have access to clean water, good food and adequate housing. And those who are capable can start caring for themselves by eating well and staying active. For now, Dr. Overall is finished writing about death. In her position as the Nancy's Chairholder in Women's Studies - a position created in 1984 by a federal grant and endowed by Canadian feminist and philanthropist Nancy Ruth - she is organizing a conference entitled "Educating Women/Women's Education in the Post-Secondary Context," to take place at Mount Saint Vincent this month.
She's also continuing her academic work in reproductive ethics and social policy and social philosophy, working on papers on conjoined twins and the ethics of having children. Arguing that it is a moral choice whether or not to have children, Dr. Overall notes that as a mother of two she is rare in the world of academia where many of her female contemporaries opted not to have children. And, while she is excited about the position at the Mount, she is sorry that it means a long separation from her husband and two grown children. When her appointment is over, she'll return to her family and regular job as philosophy professor at Queen's, and to writing her weekly feminist column, "In Other Words," for the Kingston Whig-Standard. "I would love to have a very, very long life," says the 57-year-old. "I still have lots of things I want to do."