A girl dying of cancer wanted to use cryonic preservation to have a chance at being revived in the future. While supported by her mother the father disagreed; in a recent high court ruling, the judge found that she could be cryopreserved.
As the judge noted, the verdict was not a statement on the validity of cryonics itself, but about how to make decisions about prospective orders. In many ways the case would presumably have gone the same way if there had been a disagreement about whether the daughter could have catholic last rites. However, cryonics makes things fresh and exciting (I have been in the media all day thanks to this).
What is the ethics of parents disagreeing about the cryosuspension of their child?
One obvious principle is that parents ought to act in the best interest of their children.
If the child is morally mature and with informed consent, then they can clearly have a valid interest in taking a chance on cryonics: they might not be legally adult, but as in normal medical ethics their stated interests have strong weight. Conversely, one could imagine a case where a child would not want to be preserved, in which case I think most people would agree their preferences should dominate.
The general legal consensus in the West is that the child’s welfare is so important that it can overrule the objections of parents. In UK law parents have the right and the duty to give consent for a minor. Children can consent for medical treatment, overriding their parents, at 16. However, if refusing treatment parents and court can override. This mostly comes into play in cases such as avoiding blood transfusions for religious reasons.
In this case the issue was that the parents were disagreeing and the child was not legally old enough.
If one thinks cryonics is reasonable, then one should clearly cryosuspend the child: it is in their best interest. But if one thinks cryonics is not reasonable, is it harming the interest of the child? This seems to require some theory of how cryonics is bad for the interests of the child.
As an analogy, imagine a case where one parent is a Jehovah’s Witness and want to refuse a treatment involving blood transfusion: the child will die without the treatment, and it will be a close call even with it. Here the objecting parent may claim that undergoing the transfusion harms the child in an important spiritual way and refuse consent. The other parent disagrees. Here the law would come down on the side of the pro-transfusion parent.
On this account and if we agree the cases are similar, we might say that parents have a legal duty to consent to cryonics.
Weak and strong reasons
In practice the controversialness of cryonics may speak against this: many people disagree about cryonics being good for one’s welfare. However, most such arguments usually seem to be based on various farfetched scenarios about how the future could be a bad place to end up in. Others bring up loss of social connections or that personal identity would be disrupted. A more rational argument is that it is an unproven treatment of dubious efficacy, which would make it irrational to undertake if there was an alternative; however since there isn’t any alternative this argument has little power. The same goes for the risk of loss of social connection or identity: had there been an alternative to death (which definitely severs connections and dissolves identity) that may have been preferable. If one seriously thinks that the future would be so dark that it is better not to get there, one should probably not have children.
In practice it is likely that the status of cryonics as nonstandard treatment would make the law hesitate to overrule parents. We know blood transfusions work, and while spiritual badness might be a respectable as a private view we as a society do not accept it as a sufficient reason to have somebody die. But in the case of cryonics the unprovenness of the treatment means that hope for revival is on nearly the same epistemic level as spiritual badness: a respectable private view, but not strong enough to be a valid public reason. Cryonicists are doing their best to produce scientific evidence – tissue scans, memory experiments, protocols – that move the reasons to believe in cryonics from the personal faith level to the public evidence level. They already have some relevant evidence. As soon as lab mice are revived or people become convinced the process saves the connectome the reasons would be strengthened and cryonics becomes more akin blood transfusion.
The key difference is that weak private reasons are enough to allow an experimental treatment where there is no alternative but death, but they are generally not enough to go for an experimental treatment when there is some better treatment. When disallowing a treatment weak reasons may work well against unproven or uncertain treatments, but not when it is proven. However, disallowing a treatment with no alternative is equivalent to selecting death.
When two parents disagree about cryonics (and the child does not have a voice) it hence seems that they both have weak reasons, but the asymmetry between having a chance and dying tilts in favor of cryonics. If it was purely a matter of aesthetics or value (for example, arguing about the right kind of last rites) there would be no societal or ethical constraint. But here there is some public evidence, making it at least possible that the interests of the child might be served by cryonics. Better safe than sorry.
When the child also has a voice and can express its desires, then it becomes obvious which way to go.
King Solomon might have solved the question by cryosuspending the child straight away, promising the dissenting parent not to allow revival until they either changed their mind or there was enough public evidence to convince anybody that it would be in the child’s interest to be revived. The nicest thing about cryonics is that it buys you time to think things through.