In 1997, when scientists successfully grew a human ear on the back of a mouse—without the use of any genetic trickery—the photograph became one of the internet’s first truly viral hits. The biological science community touted it as a revolutionary breakthrough (which it was) but at the time, the idea of applying the technology to human medicine remained a distant hypothetical.

Thanks to several key developments in the past several years, however, it would appear that the hypothetical is rapidly approaching the real.

In early 2011, researchers at the University Of Minnesota in Minneapolis perfected a method of stripping an organ of its cells, leaving only a bare protein structure in its place, which can then be seeded with new cells and grown into a perfect replacement organ. The source organ can come from a donor, and in some cases—kidneys, for example—it can even be harvested from an animal if the size and structure is close enough to human.

And even more recently, bioengineers at Cornell University revealed last month that they have successfully utilized 3D printing technology to produce an artificial human ear, which can then be seeded with cells from the recipient. Whether the underlying structure comes from a 3D printer or an organically produced organ, there is virtually zero chance of immune system rejection—heretofore among the primary challenges in human organ replacement—because the cells are created from the recipient’s own genetic material.

This stuff has been long been a topic of science fiction, but with these recent developments, a reality where human organs can essentially be replaced as easily as car parts may only be a few years away.

Of course, there are a million ethical, spiritual, and societal questions raised by this prospect. If the human lifespan could potentially be extended indefinitely, how does that change the debate about end-of-life decisions? Would only the very rich have access to these treatments? And, if one presumes widespread availability, how would you contend with the resultant overpopulation?

Regarding the end-of-life aspect of the issue, little would change about my personal opinion on the subject. I believe that every human being has the right to choose the time they leave this world, regardless of their motivation to do so. Obviously, I would hope that few people would actually make that choice, and it seems clear that the vast majority of suicides are not rational decisions made by someone in full control of their faculties. But ultimately, the choice belongs to the person who inhabits the life under discussion.

If our broken healthcare system remains broken, then it is easy to imagine a whole new angle on the gap between rich and poor, if the rich can extend their life and the poor cannot. While it could be argued that this is already the case to some degree even today, the introduction of “aftermarket organs” would amplify this issue considerably.

I remain cautiously optimistic about this question, as I believe the redefinition of healthcare as a fundamental human right is an inevitable evolution of our society, and it is only a matter of time—how much exactly, I won’t speculate—before our healthcare system starts to truly reflect that ideal. Also, it bodes well that the vast majority of the breakthroughs in organ replacement technology have come from within the academic research universe instead of the R&D divisions of pharmaceutical corporations.

The overpopulation problem, unfortunately, does not present any ready answers. The ecological, societal, and economic effects of overpopulation already plague civil planners and political leaders today, and if large numbers of people stop shuffling off this mortal coil, these challenges would be magnified considerably, to say the least.

In an episode of PBS’ NOVA scienceNOW—originally aired in 2011 after the publication of the “cell stripping” research—physicist and public intellectual Neil deGrasse Tyson offered space colonization as the most effective solution to the issue, however he also acknowledged that we aren’t really anywhere close to the kind of technological advancement that would be required for such endeavors.

There are simply too many variables to accurately predict what a world where death was optional would truly look like, but an interesting aspect to consider is whether the extension of life automatically equates to a better life. Material wealth is a useful analogy here.

In our money-obsessed culture, many people view “striking it rich” as the most reliable path to happiness and contentment, yet we frequently encounter research and anecdotal evidence suggesting the wealthy are often less content than those whose bank statements aren’t as opulent. My theory is that when one views material wealth as the source of happiness, finding out that you can still be rich and miserable must present quite the existential crisis (I wouldn’t know).

Similarly, fear of death is among the primary motivators for all human behavior, and the extension of life viewed by many as the ultimate object of desire. What happens when you remove that fear? Would we become bored and jaded with our added years?

Possibly. But the future is on the way, whether we want it or not. Personally, I say bring on the brave new world. We’ll just have to figure it out as we go.

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