UK Judges Rules on Cryopreservation

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By: Sophia Brasseux

 

This past October, a fourteen-year-old girl from the UK, known as JS, died of a rare form of cancer.[1]  However, she just might have a second chance at life. Justice Peter Jackson’s ruling on October 17 granted her mother control over decisions regarding the disposal of her daughter’s body in a groundbreaking family law dispute.[2]

In a letter JS wrote to the court, she expressed her desire to be cryogenically preserved, which would allow her body to be unfrozen upon the discovery of a cure for her rare form of cancer.[3]  When JS’s father disagreed with her decision—one that her mother supported—the family asked a High Court Judge to intervene.[4] Judge Jackson emphasized that the focus of his ruling would not be on the science, but rather on the parental dispute concerning whether the mother or father would be responsible for JS’s body after her death.[5] In his court opinion, the Judge expressed his concerns about the controversial technology.[6]

Cryopreservation is the process of freezing a human body to prevent decay after death.[7] Though the process is complicated, and still very much developing, there are three basic steps: first, the body is placed in an ice bath immediately following its being legally declared dead; second, the organs and cells are prepared for freezing temperatures by replacing the body’s fluids with agents that work as antifreeze; third, the body is placed in an insulating bag and then inside a cooling box with liquid nitrogen until it reaches minue-200 degrees Celsius.[8] Once this process is complete, the body can be transported to various storage facilities.[9] JS was transported to the Cryonics Institute, located in Michigan, on October 25.[10]

Cryopreservation has been met with mixed reviews; while some scientists are optimistic about its benefits, others are more skeptical. One such skeptic, Clive Coen, a professor of neuroscience at Kings College in London, questions whether revival is going to be a reality.[11] In Coen’s view, not only has there yet to be a revival of a human being,  a lack of weight has been given to the damage bodies incur from the antifreeze agents used during the freezing process.[12]

Many issues have led to controversy surrounding this recently developed technology, one being the uncertainty regarding its outcomes. Judge Jackson said that, not only was this the first case of its kind to come before the court in the UK, but also probably in the world.[13] In Jackson’s view, this new science will likely have the biggest impact on the future of family law.[14] Another issue is that, although cryopreservation is legal, it is still largely unregulated.[15] While regulation does exist for freezing sperm and embryos, those regulations do not encompass freezing the whole body; this sort of procedure had not yet been contemplated when regulations were initially passed.[16] Even so, preservation agreements are still considered an unsettled area of law when dealing with sperm and embryos.[17] These agreements are most successful when they are unambiguous, in line with public policy, and have extensive detail about the individuals involved.[18] Since human cryopreservation is so new, there is even less case law to base such conclusions in regards to how those sorts of agreements will be treated in court.

In JS’s case, the court’s decision to protect her post-mortem wishes gave her comfort in her final days. But what does this mean in a more general sense for family law?[19] This procedure is extremely expensive, especially considering the lack of certainty about the results, averaging around 37,000 euros for the most basic package.[20] Is the potential outcome worth the cost of the procedure plus litigation fees if a family cannot decide for themselves how to handle such a decision? Those in support of cryopreservation claim that the procedure is truly a leap of faith in the choice between “’definitely’ dying and ‘maybe’ living on.”[21] Even if the process does work, JS will likely have no living family and be stuck in the United States as a fourteen-year-old non-citizen with no conception of the present state of the world once she is brought back to life.[22] The revival of those who have been preserved may create even more legal issues well into the future.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] See Gordon Rayner, Girl, 14, Who Died of Cancer Cryogenically Frozen After Telling Judge She Wanted to be Brought Back to Life ‘In Hundreds of Years’, The Telegraph (Nov. 18, 2016), http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/11/18/cancer-girl-14-is-cryogenically-frozen-after-telling-judge-she-w/.

[2] See id.

[3] See id.

[4] See id.

[5] See Laura Smith-Spark, UK Teenager Wins Battle to have Body Cryogenically Frozen, CNN (Nov. 18, 2016), http://www.cnn.com/2016/11/18/health/uk-teenager-cryonics-body-preservation/.

[6] See id.

[7] See Meera Senthilingam, What is Cryogenic Preservation?, CNN (Nov. 18, 2016), http://www.cnn.com/2016/11/18/health/how-cryopreservation-and-cryonics-works/.

[8] See id.

[9] See id.

[10] See supra 5.

[11] See id.

[12] See id.

[13] See id.

[14] See id.

[15] See supra 1.

[16] See id.

[17] See T.G. Schuster et al., Legal Considerations for Cryopreservation of Sperm and Embryos, Fertility and Sterility (July 2003). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12849802.

[18] See id.

[19] See supra 1.

[20] See id.

[21] Id.

[22] See id.

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