A dying 14-year-old child recently won the right to be cryogenically frozen after her death following a UK court battle. In a letter to the judge, the child wrote:
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.
The premature death of a young person is a particular tragedy and one cannot but be moved by the letter. According to newspaper reports, several children, some as young as seven, have also signed up to be frozen after their deaths.
Accurate figures of how many people have been cryogenically preserved are difficult to obtain because there is no system of recording this information. There are probably several hundred in the US and Russia where facilities are known to exist. There are no laws which ban the practice outright but there may be legal difficulties for cryonics because most countries specify how a dead body must be disposed of – and exclude long-term storage of this kind.
But what are the deeper moral and ethical issues of allowing the practice? And what would the consequences be if cryopreservation became mainstream?
Cryonics is a process of deep cooling the body with the aim of preserving the tissues at very low temperatures. In effect, it is a form of cold mummification. People who turn to cryogenics are usually captivated by the possibility of having their body preserved until some indeterminate future time when it is imagined that science and technology will be capable of curing any cause of death, repairing damaged tissues and, most importantly, bringing them back to life.
But is such a thing plausible? Human and other animal tissues can of course be preserved. The corpses of mammoths, preserved in the permafrost, have been shown to have viable fragments of DNA after thousands of years. More to the point, human sperm and embryos can also be preserved for several years and still retain the capacity for life. Although most scientists are extremely sceptical about the possibility of ever reanimating a corpse that has been cryogenically frozen, it only takes one person claiming “never-say-never” to inspire some individuals to latch on to a promissory future featuring a techno-science fix for human mortality.
The existential tussle with human mortality has been a feature of culture for as long as thoughts have been recordable in art or the written word. People turned to religion in the hope of resurrection and immortality in the same way that some are now turning to science. When the Roman philosopher Epicurus tried to persuade us that “death should be nothing to us” he failed to assuage the deep human anxiety in the face of mortality.