The idea of placing a terminal patient into a deep freeze to be awakened once a cure for his condition is discovered was once just the providence of science fiction writers. Although it’s still an unrealistic medical solution, science of cryonics is advancing to the point where cryogenic preservation may be an option for patients. While scientists struggle to make the dream a reality, philosophers and medical ethicists are already grappling with the moral implications of cryogenic preservation.
For millennia, disease and aging were one of nature’s most effective means to limit mankind’s population. With advances in agriculture, medical procedures and geriatrics, worldwide population swelled from 1.65 billion in 1900 to 6.64 billion in 2008. Providing a means for more patients to receive medical care, particularly care from an era in which they did not grow old, probably won’t noticeably impact the world’s population, it raises critical issues about overpopulation and nature’s ability to cull the human population with illness and other pandemics.
At least initially, cryogenic suspension is certain to be a monumentally expensive procedure, and it’s likely that costs associated with cryogenic maintenance and housing in the interim between suspension and awakening are likely to make it prohibitively expensive for all but the most wealthy patients. Cryonics may further the economic and class gap between the healthcare industry’s haves and have-nots.
Those large maintenance costs for keeping a patient alive in cryogenic suspension aren’t going toward treatment either: They’re paid in a gamble that a treatment for the affliction is found before the patient’s economic resources exhaust themselves. Some ethicists contend that devoting such a large amount of money as a gamble to extend one person’s life is irresponsible when an equivalent sum of money could be used to provide basic health care, such as immunizations, vitamins and prenatal treatment, to thousands in developing countries.
Despite the optimism of the writers behind characters such as Buck Rodgers and Austin Powers, a patient who emerged from cryonic suspension after decades is almost certain to face profound culture shock and personal alienation from his new era. Friends and family members may be dead or decades older. Generations of history and technological development must be processed by an awakened patient in addition to the complex changes in his personal relations, potentially leaving him in a world in which he doesn't want to live.
With any medical breakthrough that prolongs life comes a flood of spiritual questions, and cryonics’ ability to extend life – albeit life in an unconscious, hibernated state – well beyond death caused by an illness or age begs the question: Are doctors playing God? Possibly more troubling, does a patient, who could theoretically be preserved for millennia, forestall his reward or punishment in the next life by preserving his shell on this mortal coil? Does meddling with lifespans in such a drastic way fly in the face of one’s superior being?