Understanding life, death, and cryogenics

Scientific procedures shouldn’t replace acceptance of mortality, writes Emma Bancroft.Scientific procedures shouldn’t replace acceptance of mortality, writes Emma Bancroft.

The debate surrounding cryonics has resurfaced this week after a 14-year-old girl who was dying of cancer won the legal battle to have her body cryogenically frozen in the hope that she can be ‘woken up’ and cured of her illness in the future once medical technology has progressed.

Cryonics is the field of science that is involved with the preservation of bodies of that can’t be kept alive using modern medicine and is done with the hope that resuscitation and restoration to full health may become possible in the future. Cryopreservation involves freezing the corpse with cyroprotectant or vitrification at temperatures around -196°C.

It is believed that if this is done as soon as possible after ‘natural death’ – usually minutes after cardiac failure – enough brain information will be able to be preserved to revive these people one day.

In this week’s case of the 14-year-old girl, her divorced parents disagreed over her wishes: her father didn’t agree with her body being frozen, whereas her mother did. When the court finally granted her wishes, her parents could not afford to pay for the cryonic process, which cost a staggering £37,000, but her maternal grandparents raised the money needed for her body to be frozen. She is the only British child to have been frozen.

Taken at face value, this scientific phenomenon could certainly be regarded as a huge development in the realm of the treatment of patients with terminal illnesses. However, as with many of these breakthroughs, it comes hand in hand with numerous moral issues.

The father of the 14-year-old girl has accused the Cryonics Institute of “selling false hope to those frightened of dying,” and accusing them of “taking advantage of vulnerable people.” Perhaps he’s not wrong. The expense of preservation is huge but, what if this ‘great scientific advancement’ that the patients of this process are hoping for is never achieved, resulting in these people never being ‘woken up’?

We are entering the realm of cryopreservation without any idea of the potential consequences; we don’t yet have the technology to bring these people back to life, so how can we be certain that we ever will have? There are so many implications that we could be faced with; what if these people are woken up for them to be brain damaged as a result of being frozen for over 100 years? What if they suffer such severe memory loss that they can no longer remember who they are? What if they may then be so ill they can’t function and wish that they hadn’t been brought back to life? Are they then entitled to euthanasia?

This argument unquestionably pushes the boundaries of ethics; on one hand, it’s difficult to deny the last wishes of anybody who is gravely ill, but on the other hand I can’t help but think we are messing around too much with nature. I don’t criticise the decision that the 14-year-old girl’s mother made; she did what was best for her daughter at the time, and maybe the prospect of a possible revival brought peace to the young girl in her final days.

However, the prospect of being woken up decades after I’d died, with no friends or family, nowhere to live and potentially no identity or memory doesn’t appeal to me.

Playing around with immortality? In my opinion, we are getting too big for our boots. Death is a part of life, not a nice one, and not always a fair one, but in the end it’s the only thing that’s certain. Or maybe these days it isn’t…?

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