LONDON – A British High Court judge has ruled in favor of a teenage girl with terminal cancer who wanted to be cryopreserved — frozen — upon her death so that she might be able to continue her life far in the future if her disease becomes curable. The girl died last month, and her wishes were carried out. Here are questions and answers about the unusual case and the technology involved:
WHY WAS THE CASE IN COURT?
The matter had to be resolved in the Family Division of the court because the girl was a minor of 14 whose divorced parents did not agree on what should be done with her body.
Her lawyer, Zoe Fleetwood, told The Associated Press that there would have been no legal issue if the girl had been 18 or older.
The disagreement between the parents made resolution much more difficult and the judge in the case, Peter Jackson, was charged with deciding what course of action was in the girl's best interest.
He was persuaded in part by a heartbreaking letter she wrote in which she said she did not want to die and clearly expressed the wish to try cryopreservation.
DOES THAT MEAN THE JUDGE BELIEVES SHE CAN BE REVIVED IN THE FUTURE?
Absolutely not. The judge said his ruling was based on what was best for the girl, not a judicial finding on the validity of cryopreservation as a way to extend life. He did not attempt to decide whether there is a realistic hope of being brought back to life.
The judge was clearly impressed with the girl and said there was no doubt that she was mentally capable of filing a lawsuit even though she was too weak to appear in court.
He said it may be the first case of its kind in the world. But even if it is, it is unlikely to have many legal ramifications since it dealt only with the specific issues facing this family, not the broader ethical, medical and financial issues raised by the cryogenic preservation technique.
HOW MUCH WILL IT COST TO KEEP HER REMAINS PRESERVED?
She chose a basic option at a cost of about 37,000 pounds ($46,000). Her remains have been flown to the United States, where a number of companies offer cryopreservation. The details of where her remains have been placed, and who is paying for the preservation, are being kept private by the family, as are the details of the cancer that killed her.
The Arizona-based Alcor Life Extension Foundation is one of the best known facilities in the United States offering the service. Its website says preservation is "surprisingly affordable." The preservation technique is also offered in Russia.
DOES IT WORK?
Not yet. It may never be possible, but devotees believe it may be viable in the future as medical research continues to advance at a startling pace.
It is true there have been tremendous advances in using ultra-low temperatures to preserve living cells. This has helped with the preservation of blood cells, sperm and embryos. Researchers have cleared a number of hurdles to come this far — but they concede that cryopreservation cannot at the moment be used to preserve large structures like human organs. There is a long, long way to go and as yet no evidence that a whole human body can be preserved and revived.
ARE FAMILY DISPUTES COMMON IN CASES INVOLVING CRYOPRESERVATION?
Very few have received publicity, but there were disagreements over using the preservation technique among Ted Williams' children after the Baseball Hall of Famer died in 2002. The issues that led to a court battle were different and didn't involve a minor — he was 83 when he died of cardiac arrest. His remains have been cryopreserved at a facility in Arizona.