Back to Life – The Process of Being Cryonically Preserved
In October 2016, Mr Justice Peter Jackson granted the request of a 14-year-old girl, JS, that after her imminent death from cancer her mother could arrange for her body to be cryonically frozen. This case has brought many ethical questions to the foreground. As science progresses, do we need regulations around the process of cryonical freezing to protect vulnerable people from being exploited, both financially and emotionally?
What was the case about?
The girl in question was 14 years old and had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. She had read about cryonical freezing and asked for the process to be applied to her, so she may one day in the future be resuscitated and have a second chance at life.
Her grandparents had agreed to pay for the freezing which cost around £37,000.
Mr Justice Jackson recognised that, “the scientific theory underlying cryonics is speculative and controversial”. He also acknowledged that cryonic preservation, “requires complex arrangements” since the body must be prepared within a very short time of death. If the patient dies in hospital, the staff must support the procedure, as certain steps must be taken quickly to ensure the freezing process can take place.
In his ruling, Justice Jackson concluded that the girl’s final wishes should be respected.
What is cryonical freezing?
Cryonical freezing involves preserving a human body at an extremely low temperature (around -196 °C) in the hope that in the future, with the advancement of technology, revival will be possible.
What is the theory behind cryonic preservation?
The idea of cryonics first took off in the United States in the 1960s after the publication of a book called The Prospect of Immortality by Robert Ettinger, a Michigan college professor, which argued that a person frozen at the exact moment of death could later be brought back to life.
Long-term memory is stored in the cell structure and molecules within the brain. Currently, during some cardiac surgical procedures, hypothermia is used to cool the body while the heart is stopped; this is done primarily to spare the brain by slowing its metabolic rate, reducing the need for oxygen, and thus reducing damage from lack of oxygen. The metabolic rate can be reduced by around 50% at 28 °C, by around 80% at 18 °C or profound hypothermia. By keeping the brain at around 25 °C, (considered deep hypothermia), surgeries can stretch to be around a half-hour with very good neurological recovery rates.
Cryonics takes this process a step further. Proponents believe that the brain does not have to be active to survive or retain long-term memory, as long as it is frozen at a cold enough temperature immediately after death.
How would a person be revived in the future?
At the present time we do not have the technology to bring a cryonically preserved person back to life. The fields of bioengineering, molecular nanotechnology, and/or nanomedicine need to advance significantly and even then experts believe that successful revival is unlikely. Revival would require repairing damage from lack of oxygen, cryoprotectant toxicity, thermal stress (fracturing), freezing in tissues that do not successfully vitrify, and reversing the effects that caused death. In many cases extensive tissue regeneration would be necessary.
What are the ethical arguments against cryonic preservation?
It is important to remember that JS was only 14 years old when she died and was not ready to go. In her letter to the judge, she wrote, “I think being cryo-preserved gives me a chance to be cured and woken up, even in hundreds of years’ time. I don’t want to be buried underground … I want to live and live longer and I think that in the future they might find a cure for my cancer and wake me up.”
Is it wrong to give people who are cruelly taken at a young age hope that they may get a second chance at life?
There is great concern that whilst cryonical freezing remains unregulated, the businesses offering the procedure can take advantage of dying people and their loved ones at a time when they are particularly vulnerable. There is a strong possibility of this happening in circumstances where people are facing the premature death of a young family member.
In the UK, the Human Tissue Act 2004 is unlikely to support many of the medical requirements needed for the cryonical freezing process to be successful, meaning it would need substantial reforming.
There is also the question of resources. Why should future generations spend resources on restoring those that have already lived once before? What’s more, the world’s population is expanding rapidly. Sending our dead into the future would only add to that. Then there is the matter of a person entering a new, unfamiliar world with no friends, family, money or the necessary qualifications needed to survive (think how a person born in 1700 would adapt to the world of 2016).
More specific regulations are needed to force such organisations to be more candid in their literature and less likely to prey on the vulnerable.
Those who wish to offer a cryonic service should require a licence. A regulator needs to be satisfied that they are a fit and proper person to operate in this field, in particular that they have adequately trained staff and effective procedures at least to ensure preservation — though no degree of regulation can guarantee future resuscitation. The Human Tissue Authority would be an appropriate regulator. It is the statutory body which controls the use of organs and body parts, but it presently has no responsibility for cryonic preservation.
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