Cryonics: Falsehoods Beyond Measure
Cryonics is the science of using ultra-cold temperatures (often achieved with liquid nitrogen) to preserve human life with the intention of reviving and restoring the individual’s health when future medicines and technologies become available. This procedure however, while touted by many private companies as being theoretically possible, has not yet been fully realized by any company nor has it been approved by the U.S. or any other foreign government. There are a myriad of legal and moral questions that arise as a result of cryogenic procedures concerning living beings.5 As a result, it seems wholly irresponsible for private companies such as the Cryonics Institute to associate cryonics with our fantasies of “a world free of disease, death and aging,” at least for the time being.1
At the current time, cryonic preservation is being marketed by non-profits such as the Alcor Life Extension Foundation as an alternative to brain death when oxygen is no longer provided to the cells, causing them to die.1 The procedure itself involves taking a person who has been pronounced legally dead (i.e. the heart has stopped beating) and immersing the body in a cooling bath until around 10 deg. C, after which the blood is removed from the body and replaced with a cryoprotectant, a special “antifreeze,” to prevent the cells from rupturing. The body is then placed in a liquid nitrogen bath and preserved at temperatures below -150 deg. C to prevent physical decay.3 The individual, at this point, is legally dead, but is not biologically dead – a case that makes it difficult to determine what human rights they are entitled to. According to Dutch historian Antoon de Baets, “Since the dead are not human beings, they do not constitute a category of rights-holders because, unlike living persons, they are incapable of having needs, interests, or duties, or of making choices or claims, either now or in the future.” 2
There are only three cryonic institutions in existence (the Cryonic Institute and Alcor Life Extension Foundation are based in the U.S. while KrioRus is based in Russia). As a result, there are no laws aimed specifically at cryonics.3 The current law treats these preserved individuals as dead individuals. However, since they are not biologically dead and have a possibility for revival, should they be given a new category of legal status? What obligations and liabilities are a private company responsible for? What happens to those preserved individuals if the company bankrupts? In this young and growing industry, none of these complications have been officially addressed and no precedent has been set.
The “justice” principle as put forward by the Belmont Report discusses equity in medical access and research.4 The principle states that all individuals in the study, regardless of any kind of demographic, are at equal chance of risk and reward in the research. Since cryonics is currently run predominantly by private corporations, these risks and rewards are only applied to those who can afford this endeavor. Cryonics may be considered a “medical treatment,” but it is still very much an experimental trial - one that the individual has to pay for. The Cryonics Institute advertises cryopreservation packages ranging from $28,000 to $35,000, excluding transportation costs. The Alcor Life Extension Foundation charges a minimum of $80,000 for neuropreservation and $200,000 for a full body preservation. In the case of a 14-year old London girl who requested to be preserved last year, her grandparents had to fundraise $43,000 to cover the cost of her preservation, even though there is no empirical evidence that their granddaughter will ever be revived with her memories or her body intact.3 Not only that, but those who are successfully frozen will reap the benefits of disease research and drug development that other humans will have had to give their lives up for further study. Those who go into stasis lose the potential to contribute to science for selfish reasons, when they in fact could be the breakthrough case for a scientific discovery. A prime example would be Henrietta Lacks, a unique patient of cervical cancer whose cells are now employed in cancer research all across the world for their immortal properties.
Cryonics, at its core, has vast potential for society. With enough research performed on lab animals and the technology perfected, many lives can be saved from terminal illnesses. At this point in time however, the legal rights of those in stasis are still up for debate as well as the moral gray areas on private company obligations towards their clients, making cryonic preservation a dangerous proposition to pursue in the near future.
1. "Alcor: About Cryonics." Alcor: About Cryonics. Alcor Life Extension Foundation, n.d. Web. 27 Dec. 2016.
2. Broadbent, Rebecca. "Do We Have Moral Obligations to the Dead?" Academia.edu - Share Research. Durham University, n.d. Web. 28 Dec. 2016.
3. Snowdon, Kathryn. "Does Cryogenic Preservation Work And How Much Does It Cost?" The Huffington Post. The Huffington Post, 18 Nov. 2016. Web. 02 Jan. 2017
4. "The Belmont Report." HHS.gov. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 15 Mar. 2016. Web. 28 Dec. 2016.
5. "UCSB Science Line." UCSB Science Line. University of California: Santa Barbara, n.d. Web. 27 Dec. 2016.