Martin Young
Martin Young

Bizarre things we could do with medical technology but probably shouldn’t

I saw recently a statement by a scientist that the first human to live for a thousand years has already been born. He was that confident that the elixir of eternal life is within reach. It made me think that there are many things already here or around the corner that medical technology could do, but probably shouldn’t.

Let’s start with living a thousand years. I’m not sure that I would really want to. For a start, the technology will probably only arrive when I’m already an old man, and who wants to be old forever? It would gall me to see youth living it up and not getting any older. As grandparents at that stage, we would get stuck with the babysitting while our eternally young kids and their kids are out clubbing. Eternal life is just not fair!

Of course the rich would be able to afford it, and not the poor. And I don’t really want to see Robert Mugabe as Zimbabwean president for another three hundred years.

As for marriage? “Til death do us part” would take on a whole new meaning.

Finding a job would be a bummer, because no one would retire. We would have the same ANC cadres in the same positions until the ANC loses power or Jesus returns. The ANCYL would remain youthful forever, and we’ve seen how well that works.

No, I think I’ll be happier with the natural course of things. As a believer my curiosity about the world in a thousand years should be assuaged, all in first-class comfort. I’ll take my chances.

Transplantation technology is another wonderful thing. Almost every organ in the body is either being transplanted, or is being researched for transplantation, opening up some bizarre possibilities. A human uterus has already been transplanted into a woman resulting in a pregnancy. It’s a wonderful accomplishment. What people don’t realise is that the technical difficulties are no different in implanting a uterus into a man. Ladies, sit up and take note! All one would need to do is a bit of hormonal manipulation during the pregnancy. Men, heaven help you if you’ve married a feminist and want kids, “You have one, I have one!”

We men have only just become comfortable (sort of) with taking responsibility for contraception. Pregnancy? Stretch marks? Haemorrhoids? Men, read your ante-nuptial contracts carefully.

The last real obstacle in transplantation science is to reattach a cut spinal cord in a manner that retains normal function. Just think about that for a second. If that can be done, we need not bother with transplanting single organs. Why not the whole body? Just swap heads. If you think that is unlikely, experiments were performed decades ago, showing that severed heads can survive if given a reasonable blood supply. Manage to connect the spinal cord and make it work and, hey presto, new working body!

Even in the absence of spinal cord reconstruction, technology allows us to imagine that a head from a person whose body is failing could be removed and grafted onto another person’s body. Question is — where would you put it? On the shoulders? Under the armpit? The “person” would be able to see, think, make facial expressions, but little else. It wouldn’t be much of a life, although Steven Hawkings lives it pretty productively. Those who doubt it can be done are wrong — it has been done, very successfully many years ago in dogs, paving the way for modern successful transplant surgery.

Genetic research makes it very likely that we could soon harvest organs for human use from animals, like pigs, by changing their genetic structure so that it matches ours. Why pigs? They have the same size organs as we do. So, in theory anyway, a head needing a surrogate body for a while could be grafted onto a genetically similar pig while waiting for a good donor body. Would you be allowed into a bar looking like that? I wonder.

Cloning is another area of fascination. So many species have already been cloned successfully that cloning human beings is entirely feasible.

Imagine a world of unlimited human clones! Sports would be entirely different. We could see an entire Springbok rugby pack of Schalk Burgers with more on the reserve bench. A commentators’ nightmare. Team selection issues would be more complex than they already are. Our entire Proteas cricket team could be Alan Donald and Herschelle Gibbs. Okay, Herschelle clones may need a bit of tweaking … one or two minor design changes to keep them out of trouble … but at least one should be in form on the day.

Which brings me to designer babies. There are already methods to filter out male or female sperm, increasing a couple’s chances of having a male or a female baby. IVF methods could already turn a single early embryo into identical twins. Or triplets. The reason it is not done is that ethical considerations prevent it, and for good reason. But it is anticipated that in the not-too-distant future couples could choose the exact qualities their newborn child will have, down to hair colour, eye colour, intelligence, and athletic ability. So, one day we may see a whole catalogue of designer baby options. Will you go for the Beckham or the Bieber, the Britney, or, currently on special, any of the Kardashians?

Medical science is advancing so rapidly that we have to imagine doing all these bizarre things before deciding and agreeing that we shouldn’t.

So if you read this in a thousand years, heavily pregnant while your wife relates your many shortcomings over the past 750 years, watching Bob contest his 307th election, as your 213 Bieber and Britney great, great, great grandchildren run amok, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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