The pursuit of cryonics as medicine

The biggest obstacle to the acceptance of cryonics is medical myopia; the idea that someone who has been pronounced dead by contemporary medical criteria will still be considered dead by future criteria. Advocates of human cryopreservation strongly argue against this. There are few things more discomforting than the idea that medical professionals of the future will look back in horror and wonder why we gave up on people who still possessed the neuroanatomical basis of their identities and memories.

But there is another kind of myopia in the public discussion of cryonics that warrants consideration. It is taken for granted by some critics of contemporary cryonics that cryonics has always been framed as a form of medicine. Nothing could be further from the truth. The history of cryonics is replete with debates between advocates of the medical model and those who believe that timely transport of the patient to a cryonics facility for low temperature storage should be adequate for future resuscitation by advanced nanotechnology. It is only because  cryonics advocates with medical and research backgrounds such as Mike Darwin and Jerry Leaf vigorously argued for adopting conventional medical techniques and protocols that today’s cryonics organizations can even be criticized  for falling short of these criteria.

There is a silver lining to a lot of the controversy that surrounds today’s cryonics . Critics now adopt the premise that cryonics is a form of medicine to make a case against practices they consider suboptimal.  It was not long ago that public critics of cryonics simply dismissed the whole idea as pseudo-science. This was never a sophisticated response but ongoing advances in cryobiology (such as vitrification of the central nervous system) and synthetic biology/nanotechnology have made this position even more of a showcase of ignorance. When people read the news about animals being cloned from straight frozen DNA they will be less receptive to tendentious claims that existing cryonics technologies are hopelessly inadequate to preserve the identity of a person.

The current development in which cryonics is being criticized from a clinical framework should have positive effects on how cryonics will be approached from a regulatory framework. It does not make sense to argue that cryonics is a pseudo-science and offering false hope but at the same time insist that cryonics organizations adopt high standards of medical care. The acceptance of the concept of “patient care” in cryonics would be incoherent without (implicitly) embracing the premise that cryonics patients have interests and deserve legal recognition of that fact. As more public information is disseminated about the quality of brain vitrification that is possible today, the need to recognize cryonics as an elective medical procedure will receive more attention from bioethicists and medical professionals.

There are those who believe that the acceptance of cryonics itself is being held back by amateurism. If this is the case there should be unexploited profit opportunities for cryonics providers that pursue the highest standards of medical care.

The "yuck factor" and cryonics

In sensationalized accounts of cryonics, explicit descriptions of cryonics procedures, and that of neuropreservation in particular, are used to invoke a negative response in the reader.  Some bioconservatives have argued that disgust experienced in response to certain ideas and practices is “the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it” (Leon Kass). In some cases, such as senseless violence, this is not necessarily an unreasonable approach because it may reflect a preserved instinct against behavior that is harmful to the individual or group. In such examples, however, the wisdom of repugnance can be corroborated by rational justification as well.

Where such an appeal to gut feelings is less fruitful, however, is in the context of medicine and forensics. The daily activities of many medical professionals and morticians consist of activities that would produce a strong negative gut response in most people who would observe them in all their detail. As the Alcor Life Extension Foundation points out in a document denying the mistreatment of Ted Williams:

Consider if a journalist did this expose of the funeral industry: “Funeral Home Scandal: Bodies injected with poison, organs mutilated, remains stuffed into wood boxes and covered with dirt!” It’s all true, right? Of course, if a disgruntled apprentice embalmer went to a sports magazine describing in graphic detail the use of a trocar during embalming of a sports celebrity, or the physical effects of cremation, he would be escorted out of the building by security.

The “yuck factor” that is produced in many people when they read about the details of cryonics procedures is not evidence of  pseudo-science or mistreatment. As a matter of fact, the procedures that are routinely performed in cryonics labs are designed to preserve life, not to destroy it. In this sense, the practice of cryonics can claim the moral high ground over prevailing methods of dealing with “human remains,”  where critically ill people are buried or burned because contemporary medicine has not yet found a way to treat them. If anything, it is this kind of medical myopia that should trigger the yuck factor.