Transhumanism: Tomorrow’s Healthcare Issues Today

January 30, 2007

This may seem far-out to you, but bear with me: it has near-term health business and policy implications that may not be obvious at first.

I’ve written a piece on the Huffington Post about the social and political implications of “transhumanism.” Transhumanists promote the radical transformation of the human body, including life extension and the merging of biology with computing technology. Transhumanists often also support parent’s rights to genetically re-engineer their children.

“Transhumanist” issues aren’t always far-future ones. Doctors in India, for example, are forbidden by law to tell an expectant mother whether she’s going to have a boy or a girl. That’s because abortions are common when a girl is expected. In a recent online poll at a transhumanist site, 94% of respondents objected to this law.

Why should healthcare professionals, business people, or policy makers be interested in the issues raised by transhumanism?

Healthcare professionals and practitioners will be affected, and sooner than you might think. There’s every reason to believe they’ll face some tricky ethical questions, probably in the next ten years, regarding the issues raised by transhumanists. They’ll hear about new life extension and anti-aging methodologies, and not all of them will be fringe science. But some will be untested, and risky.

Parents will be making decisions about whether to have children, or bring a pregnancy to term, using even more genetic information than they have today. They may also soon find themselves able to manipulate and influence the kind of child they have.

Business people should care because – believe it or not – the movement raises some interesting entrepreneurial opportunities. Some transhumanist-related products and services are relatively noncontroversial and can be developed with existing technology (“wearable computing,” for example). Others are only moderately controversial, like nutritional supplements. And insurers will need to look at the risk implications of providing health or life coverage to people engaging in what amounts to biological self-experimentation.

The business issues are thornier for insurance types. Health plans will need to address the issue of which new services are covered and which are not. Inventor Ray Kurzweil, whose books on transhumanism have been bestsellers, takes 275 vitamins a day.

What if his regimen, or some costly new medication, were shown to slow cellular degeneration or other aging symptoms currently regarded as inevitable? Are you, Ms./Mr. Managed Care Executive, prepared to pay for these treatments – or to face the controversy if you don’t?

Policy makers will also need to become involved in the debate over what forms of life extension are experimental vs. approved. There will be dispute over which procedures are elective and which are basic health rights, and which if any should be covered under mandatory care.

Parental rights to determine the gender and even the sexual orientation of children will become the topic of public policy debate. That debate will most likely be framed as a conflict between the social good and the rights of individuals.

In any conflict of that kind I would have to come down on the side of the individual. But it’s not an easy decision, given human nature and the whims of fashion. As I wrote in Huffington:

Is our only choice between a transhumanist future where children are genetically designed to win on “American Idol,” or a world where authoritarians rule our most personal choices? The answer, sadly, may be yes.


One Response to “Transhumanism: Tomorrow’s Healthcare Issues Today”

  1. I posted a version of this at the Huffington Post as well, but the post has not appeared there for some reason. I’ll doubtless also respond in more detail, when I have more leisure, over on my own blog:

    Meanwhile, I appreciate the respectful discussion in your post – and also the mix of responses on the Huffington Post blog – but I should at least clear up a couple of things. I don’t think the choice is necessarily between liberal eugenics and authoritarian genetics – by which I (and, evidently, Fenton) have in mind the government-mandated genetic programs of the past. There are many positions in between, and even liberal eugenics could take more or less “libertarian” forms.

    Since your Huffington Post discussion suggests that I am pushing something closer to “libertarian eugenics”, I should also state that I’m not fond of the word “libertarian” without a lot of qualifications attached to it. It sounds too much like the position of Ayn Rand, say, or Robert Nozick – positions that I repudiate. I don’t belong to the “taxation is theft” camp. In practice, my economic positions tend to be centrist and pragmatic, but in principle I’m prepared to support very large redistributions of wealth if needed to meet the kind of social democratic objectives that I favour.

    Indeed, the regulation that I’d want at the end of the day might not be all that libertarian in any sense. I do worry about micro-managing how kids turn out (in another context, I support Richard Dawkins in deploring religious indoctrination of young children). I also worry about impacts on democratic equality (the kind that us European-style social democrats argue for). Finally, I worry about issues of safety and efficacy.

    However, I think it’s important to criticise opponents of genetic technologies when their arguments overreach or they start to favour overly broad restrictions. I especially think it’s important to keep the heat on arguments that seemingly valorise “the natural”. Attempting to improve on nature will be difficult, and should be approached with caution. We could go badly wrong here. But it is best, I think, if we refrain from arguments that have anything to do with the supposed inviolability of nature, or of a specific human nature. In any event, when poor arguments are put along those lines I will continue to criticise them.

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