About 18 months ago, Imogen Jones and I wrote a paper musing on some of the ethical and legal dimensions of Christopher Priest’s The Prestige. One dimension of this was a look at the legal status of the bodies produced as a result of the “magic” trick – in particular, the haziness of whether they were alive or dead; the law doesn’t have any space for a third state. The paper was something of a jeu d’esprit, written to serve a particular function in a Festschrift for Margot Brazier. If I say so myself, I think it’s a pretty good paper – but it’s also meant to be fun, and is clearly rather less serious than most ethico-legal scholarship (or anything else in the book, for that matter).
So it’s a bit of a surprise to see relevantly similar themes popping up in the news. If we’re freezing people in the hope of curing terminal illness in the future, what’s the status of the bodies in the meantime (especially if the death certificate has been signed)? There’s a load of questions that we might want to ask before we get too carried away with embracing cryonics.
Right from the start, there’s a question about plausibility. For the sake of what follows, I’m going to treat “freezing” as including the process of defrosting people successfully as well, unless the context makes it clear that I mean something else. Now, that said, the (moral) reasons to freeze people rely on the plausibility of the technology. If the technology is not plausible, we have no reason to make use of it. It wouldn’t follow from that that using it’d be wrong – but since the default is not to act in that way, it’s positive reasons that we need, rather than negative ones. Neither could we really rely on the thought that we could cryopreserve someone in the hope that the freezing-and-thawing process becomes more plausible in future, because we’d have no reason to think that we’d chosen the right version of the technology. We can only cryopreserve a person once: what if we’ve chosen the wrong technique? How would we choose the best from an indefinitely large number of what we can at best treat as currently-implausible ones?
So how plausible is it to put a body on ice, then revive it many years later? It’s been pointed out by some that we currently do preserve embryos without apparent ill-effect, with the implication that there’s no reason in principle why more developed humans couldn’t be frozen successfully. However, whole humans are a wee bit more complex than embryos; it’s not at all clear that we can extrapolate from balls of a few cells to entire humans. Even the admittedly limited experimental evidence that it’s possible to freeze whole organs won’t show us that, since we’re systems of organs. One can accept that an organ is a system, too; but all that means is that we’re systems of systems – so we’ve squared the complexity. And, of course, the timescales being considered here are tiny compared with the kind of timescales envisaged in cryonic fantasies.
It’s not worth labouring the point; but it suffices to say that freezing people usefully might well remain outside of our technical abilities for a long time. Moreover, it’d be difficult to see how the procedure could be researched in such a way as to settle the matter one way or the other. The only people who’d volunteer, at a guess, would be those who had a serious illness, and a correspondingly serious interest in being thawed when that illness could be treated – it’d be too risky for others to think it worthwhile. My gut says that they’re the only people whom ethics committees would accept as volunteers. But those volunteers are unlikely to want to be thawed unless the cure for their illness is available – why would they expose themselves to the danger otherwise? And, of course, people that ill might make spectacularly bad research subjects anyway, what with them having one foot in the grave already.
For that reason, it’s always going to be hard to say whether being frozen and thawed would be in someone’s best interest, and therefore worth doing.
But let’s put that aside for a moment, and concentrate on a much bigger issue. Even if the freezing process were feasible, there’d be another question about whether and when to revive people. A person might want to be thawed if and when, say, a cure for her cancer is discovered; but in the meantime, who would look after the body? Who would pay for the maintenance? A right to life doesn’t imply a right to have life maintained indefinitely at all costs, and it might well be quite a lot to ask of the public sector that it subsidise this stuff. What of the private sector, then? In that case, we’d have to be able to say something persuasive about it being financially worthwhile, but that’s not at all a given. The Cryonics Institute offers a bargain-basement entry-level deal whereby you can be frozen for $28000; but the cynic in me wonders how far that’d really go. And if the company maintaining you went bust… well, it’s no easy to see how a warehouse full of bodies in tanks would be much of a saleable asset. Not all companies that go out of business do so because they’re bust, of course; but they do go out of business. What would happen to what I’m going to have to hold my nose and call cryonauts?
And what’d happen if someone switched off the machine? And what’d happen to the cryonaut’s property while they’re in their tank? Does it get treated as would a dead person’s estate, or perhaps held in trust? Oh, to be the lawyer working on a retainer in one of those cases!
There’s something else that’s been bugging me, too. The desire to be frozen can – at least as it’s conventionally presented – be unpacked as a desire of an ill person to be put on ice until a cure for his illness can be found and exploited. That’s not so wild. Some people have been treated for rabies by having a coma induced; success rates aren’t stellar, but they’re better than anything else available, and one might suppose they can only improve. Cryonics might be seen as a radical version of that: shut the body down a bit until the imminent threat has passed.
However, rationale for freezing seems to assume that the person being frozen would be in at least tolerably good health when they were frozen. The recent story involved a 14-year-old frozen after her death – I’m much less confident that the law would be so easy going on someone being frozen before death. But that’s already – surely – going to confuse matters. Death is metabolic breakdown; the cancer won’t have changed appreciably in the time just before and just after death, but the body in which it’s found will, by definition: if it weren’t to have changed in a radical way, it would still be alive. The point is that it’s one thing to freeze someone in the early stages of cancer in the hope of a cure; it’s quite another to freeze their corpse in the hope of reversing not only the illness, but the death it caused as well.
Note here that even freezing someone in the late stages of the illness may not be all that desirable: presumably, they would want not only to be cured of the cancer or whatever killed them, but to have whatever damage it caused repaired as well – and that seems to suggest being frozen as early in the disease process as possible, to minimise the damage caused by the illness that’d have to be repaired on top of the illness itself being halted. That is to say: someone who’s frozen a day after being told that she has six months left to live would – I’d guess – have a better chance than someone with an identical condition but in whom the death rattle can already be heard. Someone who’s frozen at a late stage may have a corresponding reason to be on ice for a long time, while the technology catches up not only with their illness, but also with its sequelae… if it ever does. And that brings us back to the question of who ought to pay for all that. Is it money well spent?
And, frankly, why would future generations see any merit in defrosting the kind of egomaniac who thinks that future generations will want to defrost him?
I’m really not persuaded.