The complications and practicalities of cryopreservation
by Michael Cook | 3 Dec 2016 | 2 comments
Someday we might get the technique rightThe publicity surrounding the cryopreservation of the body of a 14-year-old British JS after her death from cancer has prompted more commentary.
Heather Conway, of Queen’s University Belfast, ruminated on the legal complications arising from reanimation after decades or even centuries on ice.
From a legal perspective, the problems are obvious – starting with the fact that the person has already been declared legally dead. How would, how could, the law reinstate them? Could that person reclaim assets that they owned in life, but had passed to family members on death? Could inheritance laws be undone? And if the person’s spouse is still alive but has now remarried, would that marriage still be valid when the former partner returns from the dead? Even before this happens, what is the status of the corpse during its time in the deep freeze: does it have any legal rights? How long should a frozen corpse be stored, and would the individual’s family have the right to thaw or destroy the corpse without reanimating it?And Alexandra Stolzing, a lecturer in regenerative medicine, at Loughborough University, in the UK, points out that it is still impossible to cryopreserve brains successfully. Besides she points out,
But there’s another huge hurdle for cryonics: to not only repair the damage incurred due to the freezing process but also to reverse the damage that led to death – and in such a manner that the individual resumes conscious existence.Another issue which is seldom covered in the press is how quickly and professionally the cryopreservation process takes. In the case of JS, the Judge was dismayed by the incompetence with which her body was prepared for freezing and transport to the US.
From a purely technical point of view, this added complication might be worth avoiding. For example, someone who suffers from dementia will have already lost his or her memory by the time they die and will therefore no longer be the same if woken up after being cryogenically frozen.
Faced with this, patients with neuro-degenerative disorders who do not wish to live with the condition any longer may therefore seek to be frozen before death, in the hope that they will retain some memory if revived in the distant future. This clearly raises both legal and ethical questions.
Patient A-1175, whose brain was stored at the Alcor facility in Phoenix, Arizona, 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 bullet was extracted.) If the chances of reanimation for normal patients are slim, what are his? But Alcor has still banked its US$80,000 fee.
California’s assisted suicide law came into effect on June 9. Betsy Davis, an artist with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, was one of the first to take advantage of the legislation. She drank a lethal cocktail on July 23, after a long party with close friends. I’m afraid that we missed the story at the time.
Reading her sister’s account of Betsy’s death, which is full of loving sorrow at her passing, I was struck by how quickly Californians started to ignore all the careful safeguards. It is clearly specified in the law that the person must “self-administer” the drug. But she was too weak to hold the cup and drink it quickly, so her friends held it for her. They may have broken the law.
People tend to think that a lethal barbiturate brings about death quickly. This wasn’t true in Betsy’s case – she lingered on for four hours. Given that the drug was a homemade cocktail of morphine, pentobarbital and chloral hydrate which smelled like paint, her friends were “lucky” that it worked. Some assisted suicide patients in Oregon have woken up to discover that their suicide has failed.
It wasn’t a good beginning for the law.
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