2 October 2023
On 12 October, 2022, Channel News Asia (CNA) published an article on its website about a cryonics facility in Scottsdale, Arizona, run by the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, which claims to be the world leader in the field.
Among its many ‘patients’, as the Foundation calls them, is the Bitcoin pioneer Hal Finney, whose body is placed under cryopreservation after his death in 2014 from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS. To date, about 200 people have cryopreserved their heads and bodies at Alcor in the hope of being revived in the future where medical science has found a cure for their medical conditions.
Despite scepticism in many quarters, human cryonic preservation is a developing industry with facilities in Moscow, California, China, Japan, Thailand and rural Australia. As the Russian cryonics company KrioRus puts it, ‘interest in cryonics is growing everywhere’ due to advances in technology and in the fields of cryobiology and gerontology.
Cryonics is related to cryogenics, which is the study of how materials and organisms behave in extremely low temperatures, usually below -150 degrees Celsius. Cryonics, then, is a technique of storing and preserving organisms in extremely low temperatures with the view of reviving them in the future.
The Northrop Grumman Corporation, an American multinational aerospace and defence technology company, describes cryonics in this way:
If a man dies today it no longer is appropriate to bury or cremate the body. For there is hope that by keeping it at very low temperatures, physicians of the future may be able to revive him and cure him. And if someone has an ‘incurable’ disease, it is not good practice to let him succumb; it is preferable to put the patient into low-temperature storage until medical facilities become available, or until a cure is discovered.
Research in cryonics has been developing at a steady pace.
Recently, cell biologist Mark Roth successfully put a vertebrate into an oxygen-deprived state and subsequently brought it back to normal development. He believes that animals have ‘metabolic flexibility’ which allows them to adapt to the environment by adjusting their respiration and heartbeat.
Dr Peter Rhee, a trauma surgeon from Tucson, who has been experimenting on suspended animation techniques on pigs for over 20 years, recently received approval from the Unites States’ Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to proceed with human trials. He believes that patients who are in critical conditions can be given more time by inducing severe hypothermia.
Texas A&M Institute for Preclinical Studies (TIPS) has received funding to the tune of US$9.9 billion from Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to study the effects of hydrogen sulphide on the human body. Hydrogen sulphide can block oxygen production in the body thereby putting it into a state of suspended animation.
Even though its success is purely speculative at this point because no human being has been brought back to life from suspended animation, cryopreservation is gaining traction in some circles. But it does not come cheap.
The cryonic preservation of the entire body costs no less than US$200,000, while neuro-suspension (the cryopreservation of the brain only) costs around US$80,000. In addition, there is a monthly membership fee of US$500. According to the CNA report, ‘[m]ost of Alcor’s almost 1,400 living “members” pay by making the company the beneficiary of life insurance policies equal to the cost …’
THINKING THROUGH THE IMPLICATIONS
It should be pointed out that while cryonics has attracted some media attention of late, scientists are nowhere near being able to resuscitate human bodies from cryonic freezing. In fact, some bioethicists are of the view that it is purely science fiction, and that it will never be realized.
As Arthur Caplan, head of the medical ethics division at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine puts it: ‘This notion of freezing ourselves into the future is pretty science fiction and it’s naïve. The group … getting excited about the possibility are people who specialize in studying distant future or people who have a stake at wanting you to pay the money to do it.’
Be that as it may, the fact that there are a number of companies that are currently providing this service and that people are continuing to sign up for it behoves Christian theologians and ethicists to reflect seriously on the implications of such endeavours.
Space allows us to briefly discussion some possible concerns.
Possible vs Not Possible
There are social and ethical issues that demand serious consideration regardless of whether the suspended animation and resuscitation of human beings is possible or not.
If Caplan is right and the whole cryopreservation and resuscitation of human bodies is nothing but a pipe dream, that is, if the ‘science’ lacks legitimacy, then the companies providing this service are offering their ‘patients’ false hope.
While people of course have the right and therefore bear the responsibility of choosing cryonics, the false hope that these companies present them often determines their choice.
If, on the other hand, cryonics does develop to the point of successful resuscitation, other issues will present themselves. Bioethicists have imagined that society may be faced with the problem of overpopulation, and this in turn will have implications on how our limited resources can be justly distributed.
Accessibility and Justice
A number of bioethicists have pointed out that even if cryonics were to enjoy consistent success, it would be available to only a small fraction of the population due to the cost of the procedure. Cryonics would therefore exacerbate the already troubling inequalities that prevail in healthcare.
In response to this issue, ardent life extensionists and cryonicists have insisted – on the basis of justice – that there should be fair and equal access to the ‘treatment’. The best way of achieving this, they argue, is for the national health service of the country to offer the ‘treatment’ at no cost to all who freely choose it.
For example, Charles Tandy, Associate Professor of Humanities at Fooyin University (Taiwan) argues that ‘American society has a “just” obligation to make available, as appropriate to its citizens, the biomedical procedure of cryonic-hibernation as part of the “free” system of … health services.’
The majority of bioethicists have rightly and effectively refuted such arguments as ludicrous and ethically irresponsible. As Ken Kirkwood of Western University candidly put it, ‘I disagree with life extensionists. I think it’s entirely wrong … it’s immoral to steer the discussion to the extension of life when we’ve got real old people in real difficulty.’
Kirkwood is right. To invest enormous amounts of resources to cryopreservation when the possibility of cryonic revival remains doubtful is unethical. Resources should be allocated instead to research and therapy the hold more promise and that could actually deliver positive results.
Cryonics, Suicide and Euthanasia
The growing interest in cryonics has led some bioethicists to worry if it may indirectly give validation to physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia.
The reasoning proceeds in this fashion. Cryonicists believe that cryopreservation works best when the conditions of death are well-controlled. Currently suspended animation can proceed only when the ‘patient’ is legally dead (which can be based either on the cardiopulmonary or neurological criteria or both).
However, if one wishes to increase the chance of preserving all the neural and bodily information necessary for a successful revival, it would be best to subject the body to cryonic suspension before natural death. This has led some cryonicists to suggest that the person who wishes to have his body preserved should opt for physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia.
In fact, some have even suggested that cryonic suspension should begin even before the disease takes hold. This is especially crucial in certain forms of mental illness such a dementia because the more advanced the disease the more difficult to repair the damage in the future.
Physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia are of course procedures that Christian ethics oppose because of the sanctity of human life.
A Christian response to cryonics must first of all discern the philosophy of life which undergirds the entire endeavour, which is basically materialistic in essence. As Christian apologist Norman Geisler has pointed out:
Cryonic preservation of the human body is based on a materialistic view of the human person. It is a denial of the spiritual nature of human beings and a denial of the reality of the soul.
Death then becomes the terminus ad quem – the limiting point of life, its absolute end. Cryonics is therefore a desperate attempt to circumvent this eventuality by preserving the body.
For the Christian, however, death is not the absolute end but a new beginning – it is the passage to eternal life (Philippians 1:21). Moreover, since death is a conquered enemy (1 Corinthians 15:55-57), it must not be opposed at every turn.
As the late Pope John Paul II puts it so eloquently in his address to the International Congress of Transplantation Society in 2000, ‘Death is not only the end of our earthly life, but also the gateway to eternal life. We must respect this reality and not seek to evade it.’