Frozen stiff: the quackery of cryonics

Michael Cook
December 1, 2016
Reproduced with Permission

A 14-year-old British girl dying of rare form 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. Her father, whom she had not seen for years, was opposed; her mother was not. Because, as a minor, she needed the permission of both, she brought her request to 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."

Justice Peter Jackson declared that this was possibly the first case of its kind in the world, with its bizarre combination of childhood illness, family conflict and scientific advances. He ruled that there was no legal obstacle to the wishes of JS for her post-mortem arrangements, although he insisted that

[this case] is not about whether cryonic preservation has any scientific basis or whether it is right or wrong. The court is not approving or encouraging cryonics, still less ordering that JS's body should be cryonically preserved. Nor is this case about whether JS's wishes are sensible or not. We are all entitled to our feelings and beliefs about our own life and death, and none of us has the right to tell anyone else - least of all a young person in JS's position - what they must think.

Things went more or less according to plan, although there were some hitches. JS's mother was so pre-occupied with the freezing process that she did not spend much time at the bedside of her dying daughter. The volunteer group of cryogenic enthusiasts was "under-equipped and disorganized", much to the dismay of the staff of the hospital and the mortuary. Eventually JS's body was shipped to Alcor, a facility in the Scottsdale, Arizona, one of three in the world which 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 more intellectually sophisticated than a roundworm has survived being frozen with liquid nitrogen, as Alcor cheerfully 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 in societies which value smiles, handshakes and basketball, amongst other things. Alcor believes that the best option would be to regrow a body around the brain. Another option, which is popular topic of discussion amongst 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 headache. Imagine waking up paralysed on one side with a 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 you be sure that the storage companies will fulfil their contracts? Whatever they tell their patients now, they can hardly give iron-clad guarantees that the frozen corpses and brains will survive extended blackouts, natural disasters, human error, criminal malfeasance or bankruptcy. In 1979 one incompetent outfit in California allowed nine patients to decompose.

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. (JS's British father was particularly concerned that she would wake up in the United States of America.)

Nonetheless, people desperate to extend their lives are signing up with the storage companies. Alcor, in Arizona, and the Cronics Institute , in Michigan, both have about 150 patients. KrioRus , in Russia, a new business, has about 50. It's not a big industry, but it is growing. Two groups Down Under, 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. Is it ethical?

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

Not all of the patients are rich, scientifically literate and emotionally balanced. 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 0.000000000000001%, or possibly much less than that. Taking his $80,000 seems only marginally less ethical than taking $200,000 from a dying 14-year-old girl.