The ethics of cryonics interference

Advocates of human cryopreservation argue that death is not an event but a process. Cryonics patients are stabilized at low temperatures in anticipation of a second medical opinion in the future. This raises an important ethical issue. What is the moral status of cryonics patients? It is not possible to argue that cryonics patients will be resuscitated in the future. But it is not possible to categorically rule this out either. As a matter of fact, evidence from cryobiology, neuroscience, and synthetic biology support the technical feasibility of cryonics. As a consequence, cryonics patients are somewhere on a continuum between alive and irreversible biological death.

What does this mean when someone interferes with a person’s wish to be cryopreserved? In essence, those who successfully prevent the cryopreservation of a person have altered the probability of future revival from “possible” to “impossible.” For example, let us assume that cryonics patients can be resuscitated in the future. What does this mean for those who were not cryopreserved because of hostile interference? Have they been killed? Most people would agree that such a verdict is too strong. But do we believe that a person who knowingly changes the prospect of future revival from possible to impossible (or decreases those probabilities by causing delays) should be free from moral blame and legal consequences?

A related problem is the termination of cryonics procedures. Advocates of cryonics agree that a person who has not chosen for cryonics should never be forced to be cryopreserved. But what is the right course of action when such a person is already cryopreserved? Can we just thaw him out? Let us consider the case of a person with a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order who is accidentally resuscitated because paramedics were not aware of his wishes on the matter. Few people would argue that this person should be killed before he gains awareness to honor his wishes. Now let us consider a situation where it is discovered that a person was cryopreserved against his will but at a point in the future when the prospect of resuscitation becomes increasingly likely. In such a case, the issue would be similar to a resuscitated DNR patient in deep anesthesia.

This example illustrates a number of issues. There is a meaningful distinction between ignoring someone’s wishes not to be cryopreserved and terminating the cryopreservation of an existing patient. Honoring a person’s wishes not to be cryopreserved requires non-interference. Thawing out an existing cryonics patient is an act to change someone’s existing chance at revival from possible to impossible. The example also illustrates the role that probability of resuscitation plays in such considerations. Few people would argue that it does not matter at all how credible resuscitation of cryonics patients is for making decisions about the  moral status of cryonics patients, interference with cryonics procedures, and the decision to terminate somebody already in cryostasis.

We want certainty in a universe that only offers us probabilities. The ethical and legal issues surrounding cryonics are not unique to cryonics. It is not just in cryonics where issues of moral obligation are discussed in the context of uncertainty, probability and risk. It will be rewarding to review these philosophical and legal debates and see how debates about interference with cryonics can be framed from these perspectives.

In the meantime, people who have made cryonics arrangements are not completely powerless against hostile interference. They can alter their cryonics paperwork and living will to ensure that there is little incentive for greedy relatives to interfere. As a matter of fact, one could change one’s “last” wishes to ensure that interference would trigger the worst financial outcome for greedy family members and others who would stand to benefit from a person not getting cryopreserved.