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Cryonics: hype, hope or hell?

Cryonics has gone from the world of sci-fi movies to the law courts for the family of one 14-year-old girl. from www.shutterstock.com

Cryonics: hype, hope or hell?

A 14-year-old dying girl has won the right to have her body cryonically preserved immediately after she died, according to a recent UK High Court decision.

The girl, known as JS, hoped that sometime in the future, when doctors found a cure for her cancer, she might be brought back to life. She had spent several months researching the science of cryonics and the judge had no doubt that she had sound capacity when making her decision.

The judge noted that under the UK’s Human Tissue Act cryonics is not illegal. However, it is unregulated. The closest the act comes to cryonics is regulating the freezing of sperm and embryos, in the form of cryopreservation. The judge did, however, acknowledge the need for new legislation relating to cryonics.

This case has received a huge amount of public attention.

But how realistic is cryonics’ chance of success? Is it a nonsensical waste of money and resources, selling snake oil for hope in dying patients? Or is it the new frontier of modern medical science, the path to post-humanism?

What is cryonics?

Cryonics involves freezing the body to preserve it immediately or very soon after death. The intention is to re-animate the body in the future, when doctors find a cure for the disease that caused death in the first place.

The general term cryogenics relates to the effects of low temperatures on materials. However, in this latest case, the judge referred to the practice of cryonics.

When a dead body is cryonically preserved, it is packed with ice and injected with anticoagulants, a treatment to stop blood from clotting. The body is then transported to one of three cryonic centres in the world.

There, in a process known as vitrification, the body is drained of its blood, which is then replaced with chemicals and anti-freeze. The body is placed in a sleeping bag and housed in a tank of liquid nitrogen at -196℃. The US company Alcor, for example, advertises cryonic preservation for the whole body costing about US$200,000 all up; preserving just the brain is cheaper, at around US$80,000. With some companies, people can pay with their life insurance.

Insulated tanks of liquid nitrogen like these are used to store patients at -196℃. Cryionics Inst/AAP

The premise of cryonics is based on a possibility rather than a probability of success. There is no scientific evidence to suggest that it is possible to revive a person back to a living state.

Cryobiologists hope that with future technology, including nanotechnology, they will be able to repair cells and tissues that are damaged during the freezing process. But they’ve not been successful yet.

Is cryonics ethical?

There are some arguments in favour of cryonics, the simplest of which is one of free will and choice. As long as people are informed of the very small chance of success of future re-animation, and they are not being coerced, then their choice is an expression of their autonomy about how they wish to direct the disposal of their bodies and resources after death.

In this light, choosing cryonics can be seen as no different to choosing cremation or burial, albeit a much more expensive option.

However, this case raises several other ethical and problematic concerns. There is the issue of potentially exploiting vulnerable people. Some might argue vulnerable people are trading hype for hope.

But if we were to replace the science of cryonics with the promises of religious or spiritual healers made at the bedside of the dying – of earlier access to “eternal life” in return for large payments known as indulgences – would this be so different?

Serious regulatory problems ahead

Legal and ethical issues aside, there are other serious issues to consider.

How can dying people have confidence in the ability of a company to keep their remains intact? If the cryonic company were to cease operating because of financial difficulties, what would happen to the frozen body?

Although highly unlikely to work, cryonics if successful might harm people. Depending on the length of time they were preserved, what would they wake up to? They would have no living family, social or support networks. People would be reanimated into a world that has radically changed, with little or very few resources to support them.

What type of world would the girl at the centre of the latest court case wake up to? Daily Mirror

In the case of JS, if she is re-animated in the future, who would act as her parent or guardian? Assuming the company is able to trace any family descendants, would they consent to looking after her needs? Would JS consent to being placed in their care? These are all unanswered questions with no immediate answers.

The cryonic process might work, but imperfectly. During the process of re-animation, there may be some brain damage. That would mean rather than waking up as you, you might be unconscious or trapped in some disordered, uncontrollable painful stream of consciousness. Companies must be required to test the success of their product; it remains to be seen what the markers of success of re-animation are.

It might be heaven but it might also be hell. The key issue is that people must be made aware of the risks as well as the benefits, and are not exploited.

Most troubling are the questions of natural justice. How long should people live? What is a fair innings? A life of 80 years, 100 years, 500 years? Do we have an obligation to die at some point and turn the world over to the next generation, instead of hanging around indefinitely? This is fast becoming an unavoidable question not only because of cryonics, but also because of the prospect of gene editing and regenerative medicine to prolong life.

Cryonics raises issues about the meaning of life and the definition of death. If someone was frozen before their heart stopped, would they be dead or in a state of suspended animation? Freezing might be an attractive alternative to conventional euthanasia.

Could it happen in Australia?

As early as 2017, New South Wales might see the launch of its first not-for-profit cryonic centre that hopes to also act a self-regulatory body for the cryonics industry in Australia.

The sad and worrying part of this is that the case of JS might influence some desperate parents whose children are suffering incurable diseases to consider cryonics as a last chance of hope.

However, without any regulation or certainty in the law, this would be a disaster. If the cryonic process is not successful for JS or others, then at least it seems like a considerable waste of money. If it misfires, it could be an unparalleled disaster for the person or society.

If it is successful, the lack of any regulation (now or in the future) might mean that it is effectively like placing a person in a time-capsule to be woken at some stage in the future, with no guarantees about what that future looks like – technologically, materially, or socially.

It might not only be a hell for the individual – it might be a hell for the next generation, who are left to decide and care for “out of date” members of a previous generation.