Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Frozen Stiff

By Michael Cook

Cryonics is a growing industry even if its feasibility is questionable and its ethics murky.

A 14-year-old British girl dying of cancer recently won a court battle to be cryogenically frozen after her death. The world-wide publicity has revived public interest in this peculiar end-of-life option.

The teenager’s divorced parents could not agree about whether to carry out her wishes, so she sought permission from the UK High Court. In a touching letter to the judge, the girl, known only as JS, wrote,

I have been asked to explain why I want this unusual thing done. I’m only 14 years old and I don’t want to die, but I know I am going to. 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. I want to have this chance. This is my wish.

Things went according to plan. After her death on 17 October, JS’s body was frozen by a volunteer group in the UK and shipped to Alcor, a facility in the United States, one of three in the world that store frozen bodies.

Cryopreservation is not cheap. Basic packages cost, in the words of Justice Jackson, “about ten times as much as an average funeral”. Alcor charges about US$200,000 for preserving a body. The cheaper option of preserving only the brain costs US$80,000. In JS’s case, her maternal grandparents paid to freeze her body.

Nor is there any guarantee of success. Nothing higher than a roundworm has survived being frozen with liquid nitrogen, as Alcor admits.

And even if it became possible in the distant future, patients would still face huge problems.

What would happen to a person who chose the frozen brain option? He or she would no longer have a body – no small handicap. Alcor believes that the best option would be to regrow a body around the brain. Another option discussed among transhumanists is to upload the brain’s consciousness to the internet. Both options seem improbable.

The freezing process might damage the brain. Imagine waking up in 200 years with a bad stroke or with a severe psychological disorder. Imagine waking up with amnesia unable to remember why you are there and who you are.

Furthermore, even if it becomes possible to revive patients in the distant future, can the storage companies guarantee that they will fulfil their contracts? Whatever they tell their patients now, they cannot give iron-clad guarantees that the frozen corpses and brains will survive extended blackouts, natural disasters, human error, criminal malfeasance or bankruptcy.

Hundreds of years in the future, will JS’s contract with Alcor be honoured? Our own generation takes a rather cavalier attitude toward the hallowed precincts of cemeteries, turning them into parking lots and shopping centres. Why should we expect our descendants to take special care with frozen corpses?

And if, however remote the possibility, cryopreservation worked, what sort of society would the patients wake up in? They would be, for the most part, aged and possibly disabled adults requiring extensive medical care, rehabilitation and education. They would have no family support. Only an extremely generous government would be inclined to pay their bills.

Nonetheless, people desperate to extend their lives at any cost are signing up with the storage companies. Alcor in Arizona and the Cryonics Institute in Michigan both have about 150 patients. KrioRus, a new business in Russia, has about 50. It’s not a big industry but it is growing. Two groups here, the Cryonics Association of Australasia and Stasis Systems Australia, have teamed up to build the first cryonic storage facility in the Southern Hemisphere.

At best cryopreservation is a gamble, at worst it is quackery. Is it ethical?

If you can give fully informed consent, perhaps it is. The Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel has signed up with Alcor. He knows the odds; why shouldn’t the company store his remains in its expensive, chilly mausoleum?

But Alcor’s latest neuropatient was a 68-year-old Californian man who committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. His brain was not removed until a week after his death. The probability of his waking up must be approximately 0.0000000000001%. That seems only marginally less ethical than signing a contract with a dying 14-year-old girl.

Michael Cook is editor of the internet bioethics newsletter BioEdge.