CHEATING DEATH

A 14-year-old terminal cancer patient didn’t want to die. So she went to court to fight to preserve her body

Obsession
Life as Laboratory
Obsession
Life as Laboratory

Even for a judge who has seen all kinds of odd and fascinating cases, a British teenager’s plea to him would have been surprising. “I’m only 14 years old and I don’t want to die,” a terminally ill cancer patient wrote to the court (pdf), “I think being cryopreserved gives me a chance to be cured and woken up, even in hundreds of years’ time.”

The case came to the court because the teenager’s mother supported her daughter’s request, but her father initially opposed it. A minor in the UK cannot decide what happens to her body without parental consent. The decision for the court was to choose whether to give the consent to the mother, who is the daughter’s caretaker, or to the father, who had had no contact with his daughter for six years before she became ill.

Cryopreservation is meant to preserve a dead body at very low temperatures (below −150 °C) until technology develops to a level where, in this case, the girl’s rare cancer could be cured and she could be brought back to life. While cryopreservation works well for some cells, such as sperm or eggs, or even bodily tissues, it has never been shown to work in entire humans. Since the 1960s, when the first cryopreservation was done, the procedure has been performed on, according to the judgement, “very few individuals, numbering in the low hundreds.” None of them has been brought back to life.

The court ruled that the mother should be allowed to decide, and, as a result, JS, as the girl is known, has had her wishes fulfilled. After she died in October, her body was prepared to be cryopreserved and flown to the US for storage. The estimated price to store her body indefinitely is about £37,000 ($45,000) but the court didn’t reveal which company she used for the service or where her body is stored. Alcor, a cryonics company, charges more than $200,000 for a similar procedure.

In choosing to rule in favor of the mother, the court side-stepped a whole minefield of ethical questions. Because nobody has been revived, there is no understanding of what might happen when that is achieved. For instance, what if the brain of JS is damaged when revived and she is forced to live a life she doesn’t want? Is it really ok to spend money on a sci-fi idea that may never become reality when that money could be used to help some one alive who is suffering today?

There are other, practical problems. “Even if the treatment is successful and she is brought back to life in let’s say 200 years, she may not find any relatives and she might not remember things and she may be left in a desperate situation given that she is only 14 years old and will be in the United States of America,” her father said in his early statement to the court.

Had the father stuck to his argument, the court may have had to wrestle with the ethics. But he later changed his mind. “I respect the decision she is making. This is the last and only thing she has asked from me,” he said.

The court didn’t identify the family, but a friend of mine who is about to sign a contract to be frozen after he dies, puts his reasoning this way: “Any hope of life is better than no life.”

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