Comment & Analysis

The perils of waking the dead

A 14-year old girl in the UK, dying of cancer, was awarded by court the right to have her body frozen after her death, so-called ‘cryogenic freezing’. The girl, who has since died, wants the possibility of being raised from the dead if science ever allows this, even if that is still hundreds of years away. 

She is not the first person to have their body frozen in this way. It has happened to several hundred people in the US. The reason her case found its way into the British courts is because she was underage and her divorced parents disagreed about the wisdom of her decision. Otherwise she could have gone right ahead of her own volition provided the money was there and someone could carry out the procedure.

The case has sparked a big ethical debate. If it ever becomes possible (unlikely) to reanimate the frozen bodies of dead people, should we do it? The debate is, in fact, a sub-set of the right-to-choose debate. If it does no harm, why shouldn’t we allow it? Why shouldn’t we allow people to make the choice?

Debate

In the abortion debate, those of us who are pro-life point straight to the harm the choice of abortion does; it kills a human being. But what is the harm if we ever develop the technology to reanimate a dead person? Surely it only affects that person? 

We must therefore ask, would there be any possible harms if we develop the technology? I think there would. Let’s examine some of them. 

First, look at it from the point of view of the those who seek to avail of this hoped-for technology. They are reanimated in the year, 2316, say, that is, 300 years into the future. Who will they know? All their friends and family will be long dead.

How will they orientate themselves to the radically different world in which they find themselves? That world will have changed technologically out of all recognition. It will have changed culturally. It will probably have changed racially (the West as we know it is dying out). What, if anything, will the religion be? Will the spoken language still be the same? Who will look after them?

This last question greatly broadens out considerations. The answer to all the other questions could be; the person knew the risks when they asked to be frozen and reanimated at some indeterminate point in the future. But obviously, someone must look after them, at first anyway, and therefore it isn’t just a private choice. 

We all have a stake in this, or rather our descendants will. So, we all have a right to an opinion.

When we have a child, we have responsibilities to that child. Not all of us live up to them, but we have a moral duty to look after our children until they reach the age of majority at least. They also have duties towards us, of course.

We have duties towards other people too, but they are strongest in respect of those closest to us.

What is our duty to someone who died, asked to be frozen, and is then reanimated? They have already lived their lives however long or short they may have been. We are likely to think that our strongest duties are to those born in our time. 

The reanimated dead would be a huge curiosity at first but that would soon wear off. Then we would see that they are competing for scarce resources, for jobs, for instance, unless they were somehow still independently wealthy long after they died. 

In fact, you could easily imagine society deciding collectively not to reanimate the dead in the unlikely event that the means were ever developed. It might seem like an invasion of the present by the distant past.

A more likely development is massively extended lifespans. Science might enable us to live healthily for centuries. The effects of this on society  would also be hugely distorting. 

We are designed to have a natural lifespan. To grow up, reach adulthood, have a family of our own (in most cases), grow old and die. In other words, we make our contribution and then we pass on, leaving the world to a new generation.

Directions

If huge numbers of people instead live for huge amounts of time, all this would be disrupted. How would living for centuries affect us, given our design? What directions would our lives take when they were no longer really shaped around the natural ageing process? Would we be able to motivate ourselves for centuries? What would happen to our relationships? It is not such a jump to imagine that many of those living for centuries could become listless, bored and depressed. That often happens now, when people live for decades, not centuries. 

Those very-long lived people, like the reanimated dead, would also be competing for scarce resources with the new generations. How would the new generations feel about that, about the fact that those supposed to be long dead were still alive and were refusing to make room for them? Tensions and resentments would build up very quickly.

The motivation to see your body eventually reanimated, or to live for centuries, grows out of an irreligious age. If there is an afterlife, why would you go down these paths? But if there is no afterlife, then this life is all there is, so extend it maximally no matter what the cost.

But even if you are not religious, questions still must be asked, and the big question is, what harm could it do? 

I believe the potential harms are very big indeed.