The Limits of Medicine

Interestingly, one sector of medicine that is strongly wed to a naturalist ideology is biomedicine. Human health is usually understood by biomedicine not merely as the absence of diagnosable disease, but as functioning within a range that is typical for human beings of one's age and gender (Boorse). For functionalists in biomedicine, the statistically "normal" is morally normative; that is, it represents the state of health that is supposed to be the goal of research and the priority of practice. This is why biomedical professionals strive to draw a line between their work devoted to addressing health problems and the use of their work for cosmetic, aesthetic, athletic, or social enhancements (Juengst). The use of medical tools for enhancement might be tolerated in a free society, but to the extent that they do not address bona fide health needs, they should not be given a high priority by health professionals and researchers. On what side of this professional boundary line should human growth hormone (HGH) replacement fall? If there is nothing pathological about the aging process itself, critics argue, all the current efforts that health professionals are mounting to combat it seem wrong-headed and wasteful (Callahan, 2000).

From this perspective, it becomes crucial for the ethical debate over anti-aging research to answer the question of whether or not intervening in human aging is a legitimate form of healthcare. Part of the problem, of course, is the current limited knowledge of the fundamental causes and dynamics of the aging process. In this debate, the scientific contest between the theories of aging that rely on accumulated insults and those that look to genetics is crucial. If the aging process turns out to be a confluence of conditions that would individually be considered health problems, and that vary between individuals and across populations, it would be plausible to conceptualize the process as ultimately accidental, and thus to medicalize the causal cofactors as individual health problems (Caplan).

On the other hand, if aging is a natural and inevitable consequence of normal physiology, then the process itself is normal, and therefore healthy. This is a matter of scientific interpretation, but to the extent that cellular, metabolic, and organismic senescence is inherent in the human species, the less legitimate anti-aging research appears as a field of health science. This in itself does not mean that there is anything intrinsically wrong with anti-aging research, of course, any more than research into advanced tattoo techniques is wrong. It only means that anti-aging researchers must give up their claims to be promoting human health—and the measure of public support that mantle provides (Murphy).

It is unlikely that anti-aging researchers will be able to offer any intervention that could address the genetically programmed aspects of the aging process in the foreseeable future. Instead, partial interventions, such as HGH replacement, will be developed in response to genuine health concerns. Almost any intervention that would postpone specific milestones of normal aging would also help prevent the health problems common to those milestones. Would successful HGH replacement prolong the vitality of the musculature or prevent the onset of aged-related weakness? As long as these are two sides of the same coin, the anti-aging effects of such interventions will always be eclipsed by the medical obligation to prevent disease, effectively deciding the question of the intervention's appropriateness and the need for its development (Juengst). Against this conceptual backdrop, anti-aging researchers might insist, it would be better to embrace the anti-aging goals of the patients and researchers interested in these interventions, rather than foster increased off-label (unapproved) use of interventions without appropriate safety and efficacy testing. A wellregulated and thoughtful program of anti-aging research, they could argue, will ultimately do more to protect the public welfare than relegating the effort to the margins of biomedicine (Mehlman).

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