The March of Medicalisation: Curing the Finitude of Life

Like baldness, old penises and a little girth, grey hair has entered a process of medicalisation. Today’s Sydney Morning Herald announces that scientists have found a cure for going grey. Or at least they have diagnosed the phenomenon as “massive oxidative stress” that results from the “accumulation of hydrogen peroxide in the hair follicle, which causes hair to bleach itself from the inside out.” This all sounds very plausible and scientific. I do not doubt that these scientists are providing an accurate description of the chemical and physiological processes leading to hair going grey.

While this will be welcome news for people with genetic or nutritional conditions associated with greying, the real commercial and media interest in this discovery is not for its impact on the lives of those with vitiligo. In addition to curing a specific biological conditions this technology will prominently be used to “cure” socio-psychological problems in living that inhibit a recognition of the finitude of life. The increasing number of cashed-up-baby-boomers are an enormously profitable market for this discovery and other biomedical technologies that purport to “cure” conditions associated with ageing.

Of course, some say that the lines between therapy and enhancement are arbitrary and we should embrace all that biomedicine has to offer. Perhaps. However, promises of improving, enhancing and extending life may also re-define, transform and undermine the very features of life that we initially wanted to “enhance”.

Biomedical and pharmacological technologies increasingly mask the fragility and vulnerability of the body and human existence. Further, the expansion of biomedicine into areas of life not previously considered medical leads to biomedicine becoming the frame of reference that determines the appropriate course of action to take when a problem arises, medical or otherwise.

Thus biomedicine not only assists us with knowing what to do about our greying, ageing and flaccid bodies, but when we can no longer make the infirm firm, biomedicine continues to shelter us from the realities of finite life. That is, when we have exhausted the biomedical possibilities of shaping and governing life, when our bodies move beyond the biomedical frame, we can use it to deliver us from “the strange, weird, and spooky” condition known as death.

The cure for greyness, like certain aspects of euthanasia, is not so much of a problem for what it is or purports to do, but for the way that it subtly transforms the terms of reference of who we are and how we live.