Cryogenics is that branch of physics and engineering that involves the study of very low temperatures, how to produce them, and how materials behave at those temperatures. When cryopreservation is applied to human being it is known as cryonics. Recently, a 14 year old English girl had her body cryogenically frozen.
The girl in question suffered and then died from cancer. In a letter to a member of the High Court judiciary, the girl had expressed the desire to have her body frozen with a view to being returned to life at some point in the future. She didn’t wish to be buried under the ground, or to have her body reduced to ashes through cremation. She fervently desired to have her body frozen in the hope that advances in medical science would one day be able to cure her disease.
A subsequent legal decision agreed with her wishes. At a future point in history, it was hoped, there would be a cure for the girl’s cancer. At such time, she would be reawakened, her life would be restored and she would be able to renew her existence. In the meantime she would pass into the future cryogenically frozen and sealed in metal container, along with others who had chosen the same pathway.
Cryonics has been described an “an ambulance into the future” that, it could be further said, travels along a road into eternity. It holds a place in some peoples’ thinking that was once held by some forms of religious belief. The ancient religion of Hinduism has a belief in reincarnation. This holds that, on the death of a person, that person’s body decays and returns to the substances of which a physical body is composed, but the person’s spirit, or essence, reappears in another physical object or being – the latter depending on the kind of life the person has led from one life to another.
The Christian religion has a belief in resurrection. Based on the myth of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, this significant teaching within Christianity postulates that Christian believers who accept this happening and effectively make it the basis of their lives, will, when they die, be resurrected in the manner that the faith presumes was the experience of Jesus. There are variations on this belief linking it to immediacy after death, or as an event that will happen on the last day of the earth’s physical existence (the “Last Days”). This life-saving privilege will only be for Christian believers or, more specifically, those who have followed a particular, if not peculiar, way of being a Christian – popularly known as “evangelicals”.
Therefore, and generally speaking, theistic religions, that is, those that have a belief in the existence of a supreme God – a creator and redeemer of life, who also provides for and sustains this life – posit the idea that there is a form of eternal life. It follows from this that theistic religions generally believe that all life is in the hands of and dependent upon this supreme God. It is highly doubtful that much, if any, credence would be given by these religions to the idea that the continuation of life beyond biological death is dependent upon cryonics (the cryopreservation of human life by physical scientists), or that eternal life for human beings is dependent upon any existing or future scientific process.
Apart from the metaphysical questions surrounding the issues of cryogenics or cryonics, there are quite clearly a number of practical considerations.
If a human body is to be frozen for a substantial length of time will the body’s organs, especially the brain, remain in the state in which it was frozen? In other words what would be the possible damage to a body caused by the very process of cryopreservation? Scientific opinion is divided on this matter, but it is generally conceded that a prolonged state of suspended animation would have deleterious effects on the physical human body.
Should such a process as the foregoing be a genuine physical possibility, however, what could be the psychological ramifications? What are the possible consequences for a human being brought back to life, consciousness and experience at a time in the future that has outlived, by numbers of years, and surpassed, in cultural, social and physical existence, the form of life that the revivified person has left behind?
The absence of immediate family and friends, the changes to geography and environment, the confrontation with new cultural and social practices and habits, perhaps even with a whole new range of understandings as to what it means to be human, would all have a major impact and effect on the physical and psychological being of the reawakened individual – a child in understanding, if not in age. These are major existential questions – not so much a “blast from the past” as a “blast from the future”!
As with most things in life, the financial cost of the cryopreservation of life has also to be considered. It is reliably estimated that such a process would cost many thousands of pounds – certainly more than could be afforded by most persons in British society, even by those willing to invest in insurance and life assurance policies. Would it not be more beneficial to the whole of society if money spent on cryopreservation of human life went into medical research instead, thus benefitting the whole of society? It is worthwhile noting, however, that at present the world’s foremost foundation for cryogenics and cryonics is located in the USA and operates as a not-for-profit organization.
Notwithstanding the foregoing, cryonics would seem to be the prerogative of the wealthy or those prepared to sacrifice many things in the present life in order to taste the possible opportunities, delicacies and novelties, as well as the unknown realities, uncertainties and challenges of a future existence. One more issue in the catalogue of social justice concerns.
Of course, there is also the question that, if the cryopreservation of human beings was to become the norm, where would all the frozen bodies be stored? There are presently growing ecological concerns about the land allocation for the establishment of cemeteries to bury the dead. Cremation is by no means the acceptable practice, especially amongst those, particularly the religious, who believe in an after-life and wish the physical remains of their body to be available for re-assembly at the appropriate time and place (in Christianity this is usually known as “The Rapture” or the “Second Coming” of Jesus).
It is also of interest to speculate on what effect the preserving of human life through the science of cryogenics would have on human reproduction and the shifting of human populations. If a form of eternal life could be eventually guaranteed by science then what motivation would there be to re-populate the globe through human sexual reproduction, or even of being the appropriate stewards of the earth’s resources?
In the age of the development of such human sexual preferences as homosexuality, transgenderism, BDSM and same sex marriages, would human sexuality move away from copulation for procreation and family bonding and be replaced by more exotic, if not erotic, practices? What would be the implications for the institution of marriage, the meaning and role of the family, and the societal welfare systems that supports these features of present-day society, as well as the nature, extent, cost and consequences of research into a wide variety of life-threatening and life-ending diseases?
In the case of the 14 year-old girl requesting that she be cryogenically frozen, the matter was raised as to whether she was of sufficient personal maturity to make decisions of this kind. It would appear that her parents disagreed with each other about which direction she should take in – to freeze or not to freeze? The fact that she wrote to a judge to ask for a legal decision suggests to some that, in the future, this basically personal ethical decision may become a general legal ruling. Is there a danger that the ethical concerns surrounding the ending of one’s life, death and its consequences would be undermined by legalities, as well as by financial constraints?
As a member of the Campaign for the Dignity in Dying movement, I am of the view that an individual has the right to determine the time and circumstances of her or his death providing, of course, that an individual is of a rational mind and of sufficient maturity to make such a decision. Such persons are often surrounded by support from their families and agencies that exist for the purpose. They are not alone in the choices they have to make.
There are few people who actively want to die. It is generally the wish of those who are living to hang-on to life. But death is a biological process; we begin dying from the moment we are born. Before we were born we had no idea of what life was (is); when we are dead there will be no memory of the life we have lived. This view is as much philosophical as it is scientific and would, no doubt, be challenged and open to debate for those who believe, religiously or otherwise, in some form of life after death – eternal life, if you like.
The foregoing does not reduce the value of the legacy that individuals may leave behind when they die. A form of immortality, though not eternal life, can be seen in the memories a person leaves with family and friends; literature that has been written and can be read by succeeding generations, even by those who did not personally know the person whose literature they are reading; as well as by financial legacies that are left with a variety of charities and foundations.
A good friend once said to me, with due seriousness and concern for “telling it like it is”, that “We are a long time dead”. To many it would seem a quite natural aspiration to prolong life. If this can be achieved through the cryopreservation of human life, then it is something to be thought about. Some people are obviously even now preparing for this eventuality.
Whilst medical science would hesitate to give more than a 1% chance of cryonics being successful, for some this may well be a sufficient basis for moving in the direction of an unknown and extended future in a deep freeze. For them, the pathway to the future is not so much a road less travelled as a road to be travelled.