Rudi Hoffman is an independent Certified Financial Planner in Port Orange, Florida. He specializes in cryonics insurance and estate planning.
You and I have something in common. We are both careening headlong toward aging and death. That’s the gorilla in the room that we try to ignore—the impetus behind countless brands of superstition. But this is 2007, and there may be a more scientific and rational way for us to look at these issues. If control of the material world is rapidly advancing and human beings are part of the material world, then aging and death may soon become problems of medicine, not metaphysics.
Cryonics is the science of cooling people immediately upon the pronouncement of legal death in the hope that, at some point, future technology may be able to resuscitate them. As such, it is a logical extension of the science of cryobiology, in which semen (which can be used almost indefinitely after cryopreservation), human eggs, human embryos, and other biological organisms and tissues are stored at very cold temperatures, typically in liquid nitrogen at -196 degrees Celsius.
The cryopreservation of human sperm and embryos is a mature technology to which thousands of men and women already owe their lives. Intestines, ovaries, blood vessels, and skin are among the many tissues that can be reversibly cryopreserved with current technology. Even brain slices are cryopreservable with normal function after rewarming. But the technology involved in cryogenically freezing and then successfully rewarming a complete, multicellular organism is much more complex. Cryonic suspension works today—if by “works” we mean “completely stops any further deterioration to the biological organism, whether for 30 or 300 years.” Once a biological organism has been cooled to cryogenic temperatures, further deterioration stops. Still, as of this writing, there is no documented example of a large, multicellular animal like a dog, cat, rat, or human cooled to cryogenic temperatures then successfully rewarmed with all functions intact.
But the people signing up for cryonic preservation today are not deterred by the difficulties of cryopreserving whole people. There is scientific speculation that future technologies, like artificial general intelligence, biotechnology, and nanotechnology, may enable even imperfectly cryopreserved humans to be resuscitated with consciousness intact.
Just because this has yet to be done, it does not mean that it cannot be done. Legitimate cryonics protocols and concepts do not violate known laws of physics or biology, and there are many “proof of concept” examples, like reduced temperature surgery and operating-room resuscitation of people prematurely pronounced “dead.”
Numerous modern medical procedures, including heart transplants, cloning, stem cell research, and even anesthesia, were once considered science fiction. (Interestingly, religious conservatives denounced each such advance as “playing God.”)
How many people are signed up for cryonic preservation? The first successfully cryopreserved person who has remained at low temperature is Dr. James Bedford. He entered suspension on January 12, 1967, soon after the publication of Robert Ettinger’s seminal book, The Prospect of Immortality. Though the practice of cryonics is over forty years old, the number of people signed up for suspension remains small. According to the Web sites of the two existing cryonics organizations, only about a thousand people have signed up, with about 150 already in liquid-nitrogen containers.
In 1994, I read an article in Omni magazine about a cryonics organization, the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, now based in Scottsdale, Arizona. I was fascinated to find that there were at least two organizations providing human cryopreservation: Alcor and the Cryonics Institute, the latter based in Michigan. I had thought cryonics to be strictly science fiction, and I was thunderstruck to find that two real, solid organizations had been quietly cryopreserving people for decades.
At the time, Alcor’s price for a full body suspension was $120,000. Due to inflation and improved protocols, it has now risen to $150,000. (The Cryonics Institute charges slightly less.) I was surprised to find that this entire cost can be paid by life insurance! By simply adding an extra policy naming Alcor as beneficiary, for a few bucks a day, I could be a part of this grand experiment.
As a Certified Financial Planner, part of my business is implementing life insurance solutions for my clients. I determined that an extra permanent universal life-insurance policy was quite affordable—even affordable enough to “cost justify” to my wife, whose enthusiasm for this experiment was initially less than overwhelming.
Like many people who eventually sign up for cryonics, I had multiple questions. The Alcor staff answered them straightforwardly. There was a clear understanding that cryonics is not a guaranteed ticket to the future, but is a “best efforts” proposal of dedicated and conscientious individuals. The multiple variables that could go wrong were clearly laid out for me, both in my conversations with Alcor staff and in the paperwork that they sent to me. I have since learned a great deal about the cryonics community. People who sign up for cryonics display interesting demographics. Not surprisingly, many tend to be skeptical of the claims of religions. They are generally scientific, analytical, and academic by orientation. Until recently, they have been disproportionately software engineers and computer professionals.
Most of us are extremely aware of the variables that could make resuscitation unlikely. The circumstances surrounding one’s “legal death” are obviously critical. Many of us have taken steps to reduce our personal risks for unexpected clinical death in order to maximize the likelihood that a cryonics team will be present at the time our heart stops. Coming “out of the closet” as a cryonicist with friends and family can be difficult, but it is obviously helpful to reduce the chance of delays or legal action near the time of cryopreservation.
Still, not all variables are uncontrollable. Two individuals signed up for cryonic suspension died in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. In such instances, proceeds of the insurance policy meant to fund cryonic suspension go to a named secondary beneficiary such as a loved one or charity, just as with ordinary life insurance.
While I am not sanguine about the logistical and technological challenges that need to be met for cryonics to work, I am happy to say I feel very good about my cryonics arrangement. It is a rationalist’s way of coping with medical problems for which there is no contemporary solution. While acknowledging that cryonics, like other medical procedures, is always a “best efforts” intervention, being a signed cryonicist makes me feel like I have at least taken advantage of the most recent developments in science and technology.
The ethics of cryonics are certainly relevant to humanists who seek to live with high integrity. Let me try to respond to some commonly expressed concerns.
In a world of scarce resources and overpopulation, should people try to preserve and extend their lives? We’ve already answered this question, every one of us: of course we should! Any persons seriously convinced that human individuals cause more human problems than they solve would be ethically constrained to kill themselves. Fortunately, most of us feel like we solve more problems than we create. While that may be self delusion on the part of some, I respectfully suggest that the world would be better if Albert Einstein, Robert G. Ingersoll, or Richard Feynman were still generating ideas—or might do so in the future—instead of being permanently and irretrievably dead.
What about the ethical aspects of paying for cryonics? Currently, society expends enormous resources to keep very old and frail people alive, though there may be no chance of improvement in the quality of their lives. In contrast, cryonics is easily paid for with an extra life insurance policy, is paid using only private as opposed to public funds, and has the potential to restore individuals to a quality of life that could be astounding. How should we as a society treat patients who have run out of medical options? Should they be stabilized against the day when radically advanced medicine might render a second opinion, or shall we destroy them in our arrogant conviction that present medicine has the last word on what is and isn’t possible for all time?
While not for everyone, cryonics offers to some a reasonable, affordable, and ethical alternative when contemporary medicine fails. From the viewpoint of a person from 1907, only one hundred years ago, most Free Inquiry readers already lead science-fiction lifestyles. It is not a stretch of vision or imagination to understand that cryonics, like cloning or heart surgery, will be mainstream technology in the future. This is the chance to take an ambulance ride to that future.
Sincere thanks to Dr. Brian Wowk of 21st Century Medicine for assistance with this article.
Rudi Hoffman in front of Alcor liquid nitrogen dewars, 2006. Each container holds four or more “patients” at –196˚ C.