A Cry For Cryogenic Freezing

Georgina Howlett takes a look at the frosty argument of cryogenically freezing

Georgina Howlett
5th December 2016

A 14-year-old British girl has recently been cryogenically frozen in the United States after winning a landmark court case in the final days before her death from cancer. She is one of only ten Britons to undergo the process, and the only British child.

The teenager, who cannot be named for legal reasons and is known only as ‘JS’, wrote a heart-breaking letter in October 2016 to Mr Justice Peter Jackson, a judge at the London High Court, who heard her case in the Family Division, saying “I’m only 14 years old and I don’t want to die, but I know I am going to. I think being cryo-preserved gives me a chance to be cured and woken up, even in hundreds of years’ time”. She asked that her mother, who supported her desire to be cryogenically frozen, should be the only one to determine what would happen with her remains. She explained this by saying “I want to live longer and I think that in the future they might find a cure for my cancer and wake me up. I want to have this chance. This is my wish.”

“I’m only 14 years old and I don’t want to die, but I know I am going to. I think being cryo-preserved gives me a chance to be cured and woken up, even in hundreds of years’ time”

Cryogenic preservation must begin as soon as possible following the legal death of the subject in order to be effective. First the body is cooled in an ice bath to prevent decay to brain cells and other tissues, with a ventilation mask in use to continue providing oxygen to the body’s organs, particularly the brain, and in some cases also anticoagulant heparin and automated CPR to maintain blood flow. The body is then vitrified, with blood being drained from the body and replaced with a protectant anti-freeze liquid designed to prevent ice crystals forming which would damage cells and tissue. Once this has been completed, controlled monitored cooling begins. The body is put into a protective insulating bag and then into a cooling container, where liquid nitrogen is fed in at a steady rate. The process is done slowly over several days, and completes when the body reaches a temperature of -200 degrees Celsius. At this point, bodily decay is thought to cease entirely.

The judge, in ruling on the case, stated that he was not focusing on the science of cryogenics,
as he deemed it “speculative and controversial”, but rather the girl’s wish that her mother should be responsible for the arrangements following her death. He said that there was no doubt that the girl, described as a “bright, intelligent young person who is able to articulate strongly held views on her current situation”, had the right to start legal proceedings so that her dying wishes should be upheld. As such, despite the questions of morality and ethics surrounding the ruling, his verdict was in favour of the girl and her mother. The required funding for the cryogenic preservation process (around £37,000) was raised by JS’s maternal grandparents, and was conducted by both the voluntary cryonics organisation Cryonics UK for the preparation of the body and the American company the Cryonics Institute for the storage of the frozen body. It has since been said that the girl “died peacefully in the knowledge that her body would be preserved in the way that she wished”.

At the present time, it is impossible for doctors to restore cryogenically preserved bodies to life. Additionally, Barry Fuller, professor in Surgical Science and Low Temperature Medicine at University College London, has stated that “cryopreservation has not yet been successfully applied to large structures” – meaning that the girl’s body may not even survive long enough for science and medicine to ever restore it. Whether cryogenic preservation works, therefore, is yet to be discovered.

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