Is Immortality Gendered?

Therapies that slow and even reverse aging will be a tremendous boon for both women and men.


Alberto Hidalgo/Dreamstime

"Some billionaires, already invincible in every other way, have decided that they also deserve not to die," snarks Dara Horn in her op-ed, "The Men Who Want to Live Forever," at The New York Times. "Today several biotech companies, fueled by Silicon Valley fortunes, are devoted to 'life extension' — or as some put it, to solving 'the problem of death.'"

Horn is the author of the novel Eternal Life, in which her protagonist, a 2,000-year-old woman who can't die, has evidently come to the profound conclusion that human life without the constraint of always impending death is ultimately meaningless.

While acknowledging that some women might be interested in availing themselves of anti-aging therapies, Horn argues in her op-ed that the pursuit of eternal youth is a peculiarly male aspiration. "Of all the slightly creepy aspects to this trend," she observes, "the strangest is the least noticed: The people publicly championing life extension are mainly men."*

Horn links the male pursuit of everlasting life to men's solipsistic sense of invincibility. An outgrowth of that, she thinks, is that such men feel entitled to treat "young women's bodies as theirs for the taking."

Her larger contention is that women learn through rearing children and taking care of the sick and elderly the real limitations and infirmities to which all human bodies are subject. "For nearly as long as there have been humans, being a female human has meant a daily nonoptional immersion in the fragility of human life and the endless effort required to sustain it," Horn writes. Her upshot is that responding to the needs and demands of others leaves women little time or energy for self-involvement. Maybe so.

Still, Horn does recognize that research aimed at "solving death" might "inspire the self-absorbed to invest in unsexy work like Alzheimer's research. If so, we may all one day bless the inane death-defiance as a means to a worthy end." Yes, we might well. And for what it's worth, Alzheimer's research seems plenty sexy to me.

Horn concludes by suggesting that "men who hope to live forever might pause on their eternal journey to consider the frightening void at invincibility's core. Death is the ultimate vulnerability. It is the moment when all of us must confront exactly what so many women have known all too well: You are a body, only a body, and nothing more."

The truly frightening fact is that no human body—female or male—is invincible. Developing therapies that slow and even reverse physical and mental aging will be a tremendous boon for everyone, regardless of sex. There is nothing inane about the quest to liberate humanity from the immemorial curses of disease, disability, and early death. Everyone should get to decide that they deserve not to die.

*Disclosure: I am one of them.