Cryonics is the practice of storing and preserving legally dead patients at low temperatures, with the anticipation that future science and technology will advance to a point in which we are able to revive them to a healthy condition (Best 2008; Shanbhag 2017). Cryo-preservation is performed through the process of ‘vitrification’ in which patients are gradually lowered to -120°C with the use of cryoprotectants, allowing excellent structural preservation with little damage (Alcor: About Cryonics 2018). Cryonics, however, is not a generally accepted by the science community or the public. It is purely sceptical and cannot yet be proven, forcing us to question our current classification of death with the promise of more life – creating ethical and moral arguments which we must consider.
The Definition of Death
Extended life, or even the possibility of immortality forces us to question our very definition of ‘death.’ Only one hundred years ago and even as recently as the 1950’s, cardiac arrest was believed to be an irreversible state – leading to the declaration of death (Shanbhag 2017)(Best 2008). Today, through medical procedures such as CPR combined with AED (automated external defibrillator), we are now able to ‘revive’ people who were once classed as clinically dead. Death is no longer considered an event but now as a series of processes, a state in which current medical advances are unable to cure.
The classification of death is not a simple as one may assume. For cryonicists the notion of death lies within three distinct concepts: (1) Legal Death – the legal declaration of death in which a physician determines resuscitation to be impossible. (2) Clinical Death – cardiac and/or respiratory arrest (Cron 2014). (3) Information-Theoretic Death – the point in which the neural structures that encode memory, personality, memory etc. are impaired to the extent in which the individual is no longer recoverable. If we consider for example victims of cold water drowning whom later have been revived, with thoughts and personality etc. intact, one could argue that cryo-preserved patients are therefore by definition not Information-Theoretically dead and otherwise not considered dead, but in a state of suspended animation awaiting a time when revival becomes possible.
Under current law, a patient must be declared legally dead for cryonic procedures to begin. The medical criteria for legal death however becomes irrelevant if procedures are begun promptly and in some cases waiting for legal death may result in irreversible injury (Hughes 2001). Under our current definition of death, beginning the cryo-preservation process prior to death is considered murder or assisted suicide (Cron 2014). On the other hand, Cron (2014) argues that failing to preserve a patient reaching death, even with a small possibility for revival, could be viewed as tantamount to murder. Our definition of death is redefined according to the technology and laws surrounding it.
The Origin of Identity
Cryonics in its simplest form, and it’s goal, is the continuation and preservation of personal identity (Mercer 2017). The majority of scientists agree that the basis of personality and memory are stored in the physical structures of the brain (Huxtable 2017). It has been shown that full neurological recovery has been restored subsequently after the complete cessation of electrical activity, supporting the proposition that the basis of consciousness is purely structural, and therefore able to be preserved at cryogenic temperatures (Best 2008).
Whist the development and use of cryoprotectants has rendered the damage from ice-crystal formation induced fracturing modest, it is still unclear as to whether these damages are survivable (Moen 2015).Alcor (2018) and (Hughes 2001) suggest that future advances in the fields of nanotechnology, nanomedicine and molecular repair technologies may have the capability to repair damages cause by the freezing process. Damages to the body are inconsequential as it is merely a vessel for the brain, that future advances can restore or recreate altogether (Stan 2016). Nonetheless this is still conjecture, there is no certainty that repair will ever be possible (Moen 2015), or that cryonics can preserve an individual’s personality or memory (Alcor: FAQ – Index).
The Ethical and Moral Arguments for Cryonics
If cryo-preservation is successful, would the society of the future still have the intention to reanimate those preserved (Moen 2015). On the other hand, the alternative is certain irreversible death. Romain (2010) argues that we have nothing to lose; a small chance of survival vs. no chance of survival is the rational choice is, as shown in Table 1.
Table 1. Why to choose Cryonics
Why to Choose Cryonics
You are Suspended You are not suspended
Cryonics Works You live You are dead
Cryonics Doesn’t Work You are dead You are dead
Cryonics, however, has a high cost associated. The majority of the world’s population may never have access to preservation for financial reasons (Stodolsky 2016). In contrast, Shanbhag (2017) argues that to many cryo-preservation is available through life insurance and is accessible to everyone, which raises the questions, should everyone have equal free access to cryonics? Do we allowin those who may be detrimental society access, and who has the right to decide? As being cryo-preserved is an individual choice it is morally permissible (Cron 2014)
we must consider who the reanimated person will become. Consider a revived patient in which