The Preservation of Life

Cryogenic Preservation has hit the news again. Has the time now come for the law to reflect advancing science?

Last month the High Court granted a teenager’s request to have her body frozen after her death.

Cryogenics, or cryonics as some call it, is the branch of physics dealing with the production and effects of very low temperatures. Cryogenic preservation is a technique used to keep cell tissue indefinitely without it losing its viability.

In truth, the legal issue in the case had nothing to do with science. The facts are simple.

A dying 14-year old wished her body to be dealt with in a certain way. Being under 18, she had no will. Her estranged parents had not agreed on whether to honour her wish. The court was asked to decide.

In UK law, no-one can be compelled by the wishes of a dead person to dispose of the body in a certain way. The responsibility falls to the executors of a person who has made a will and to their appointed administrators if they have no will. It is for them to decide.

Administrators are appointed in accordance with certain rules, and in the case of a child both parents are appointed equally. That was the problem.

The parents could not agree and there was no time to go through the usual court process for resolving that issue. Consequently, the girl commenced proceedings herself. She was referred to as “JS”.

The judge made it clear that the case was not about the efficacy or ethics of cryogenic preservation but did say that it showed how law can fall behind science.

Inevitably the press and broadcasters exercised their collective minds. Experts spoke about the morality and likely success of freezing a body in the hope that the person can be bought back to life once a cure for their illness is found.

The ethicists told us that the notion was engendering false hope, as the chances are so small. They pointed out the possible psychological impact of a 14 year old coming back to life in a foreign country knowing that all her family were long since dead.

They warned of the problems for people living with the thought that someone will return; the denial of death and the inability to grieve.

The scientists were, of course, measured in what they said. As one put it there is “no robust science” to suggest that someone can be brought back to life.

The scientific community agrees that thus far only living cells have been successfully preserved. The world is a long way from being able to preserve a whole organ, let alone a complete human being.

Moreover, cryogenic preservation has so far been about the living, not the dead. This raises the surreal, almost unpalatable thought that success is more likely if a person is frozen before death not after it.

One expert described it perfectly: “Cryogenic preservation could be the second worst thing to happen to a person; the worst thing being death.”

Put like that, it is not so difficult to understand why more people will be willing to give it a shot. In her letter to the court, “JS”, said:

“I am only 14 years old and I don’t want to die but I know I am going to die. I think being cryopreserved 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 may find a cure for my cancer and wake me up. I want to have this chance.”

As the only other options, burial and cremation, are regarded as being fatal to the prospects of being woken up, the incidences of cryogenetic preservation as a form of post-death, or even pre-death, disposal will increase.

The judge’s call for ministers to look at regulating the practice does appear to be timely. It will not be long before someone with the money and desire will ask to be cryogenically preserved before their death.

The times envisaged in several science fiction movies will be upon us.

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