Listening to Thomas Donaldson, I‘m struck by his intelligence, thoughtfulness, and determination. But I’m also thinking, This is the guy whose picture appeared in the Star under the headline OFF WITH MY HEAD!
That’s a direct, if simplified, version of what Donaldson, a Sunnyvale, California, mathematician and computer scientist, wants the Alcor Life Extension Foundation to do to him before a tumor destroys his brain. The headline does not tell the whole story, of course. Donaldson does not just want Alcor’s staff to cut off-or, as Alcor officials put it, “surgically isolate”-his head. He also wants them to pump an antifreeze solution into it, wrap it in plastic, chill it to the temperature of liquid nitrogen, and store it in a metal canister inside an earthquake- proof tank.
The head will remain there until medical science is sufficiently advanced to thaw it and repair the damage done to Donaldson’s brain by cancer and freezing. The same technology that will make it possible to revive Donaldson will also provide him with a new body. That’s the plan, anyway.
There are a few possible hitches, some of which we’ll get to later. The most immediate obstacle is this: In California, as in every other state, what Alcor proposes causing a person to “move from ‘live’ to ‘dead,’ ” in the careful phraseology of Donaldson’s attorneys-is against the law. Says Deputy Attorney General Kirstofer Jorstad, quoting a famous though fictional detective: “That’s murder one, baby.” Not only do Alcor members have to worry about prosecution, Donaldson has to worry about the prospect of an autopsy as part of a homicide or suicide investigation. However one views his chances of revival, it’s certain that defrosting and cutting up his head would only hurt them.
So last April Donaldson filed a complaint seeking an injunction to prevent local and state authorities from interfering with his cryonic suspension, from trying to perform an autopsy on his remains afterward, or from bringing charges against members of Alcor. In September, Superior Court Judge Ronald C. Stevens refused Donaldson’s request. He said allowing premortem cryonic suspension would require taking “a giant step” from existing case law. An appeal is pending.
The Donaldson case is the latest episode in a history of government harassment and obstruction. With only about 500 members nationwide and a not entirely deserved reputation for nuttiness, the cryonics movement is an easy target. The three main cryonics groups are Alcor, the largest, based in Riverside, California; the American Cryonics Society/Trans Time, in Oakland, California; and the Oak Park, Michigan, Cryonics Institute, founded by movement pioneer Robert Ettinger.
Ettinger, a former physics teacher, is the author of The Prospect of Immortality, “the book that HAS ALREADY begun the greatest revolution in human history” (according to the jacket). He is not bashful about his accomplishments. “Every single individual now active in the movement can trace his involvement, directly or indirectly, to my influence,” he writes. That’s because The Prospect of Immortality proclaimed way back iin 1964 that “most of us now breathing have a good chance of physical life after death-a sober, scientific probability of revival and rejuvenation of our frozen bodies.”
Cryonicists freeze the seemingly dead-sometimes whole bodies, sometimes just heads-in an attempt to preserve them until a time, perhaps centuries from now, when they can be restored and revived. It’s easy to dismiss such people as fools, ghouls, crackpots, or charlatans. And it’s hard to rouse popular indignation when the state disrupts what most people consider a bizarre, hubristic attempt to achieve immortality.
But the struggles of the cryonics movement are not about the merits of cold storage. They’re about the right to accept or reject medical treatment, including methods as unorthodox as cryonic suspension; to dispose of your remains, whether in a grave, in an urn, or in a vat of liquid nitrogen; and to hasten your death, or, as the cryonicists would have it, try to postpone it indefinitely. Thomas Donaldson and his fellow enthusiasts do not insist that others join them or applaud them--only that they leave them alone.
Still, as Johnny Carson might say, this is wild and weird stuff. It’s hard to sympathize with people you don’t understand, especially when they’re doing unusual things with severed human heads. To understand cryonicists, you have to get to know them. Hence I find myself, in early December, walking down the winding driveway to Saul Kent’s house in Riverside, site of Alcor’s annual Turkey Roast, bearing a box of Yum Yum doughnuts.
The door is answered by Kent himself, a tall, heavyset man with a pale complexion and sunken eyes surrounded by dark circles. I half expect to hear him say, “Good eeevening,” although it’s early afternoon. But no, the longtime and briefly notorious cryonicist just smiles, welcomes me, and directs me to the kitchen, where I deposit my contribution to the potluck dinner.
On the way to the bathroom, I pass through the master bedroom, where two guys are huddled around a computer, talking, I think, in PASCAL. In the bathroom, there’s a freezer/refrigerator. Its incongruity makes me uneasy. Still, I’m pretty sure that it’s not filled with human body parts. Almost certain, in fact. I check anyway. Just food. After this, I relax.
On the TV in the den they’re playing tapes of talk-show appearances by Alcor members. The screen shows a man in his mid-40s with horn-rimmed glasses and a fringe of dark hair that has been further thinned by radiation treatments. “Donahue” identifies him with the tasteful caption, THOMAS DONALDSON, Ph.D./Wants to Have Head Cut Off and Frozen.” Donaldson’s speech is generally calm and uninflected. even when he’s discussing the atop a tank brain &mor that has begun to impair his coordination and memory in subtle ways.
I sit down to watch. Most of the 50 or so people at the party are wearing Alcor I.D. bracelets, indicating that they’ve signed up for suspension. Some have naked wrists; they’re still checking cryonics out. The group is overwhelmingly male, with ages ranging from about 25 to about 65; most appear to be in their 30s and 40s.
The atmosphere is earnestly intellectual. There seem to be a lot of computer specialists, space enthusiasts, science fiction fans, and libertarians of various stripes. One woman is selling parodies of those little Jesus-in-a-fish emblems you see on the backs of cars. These fish have feet, and the name inside is “Darwin.” She says they went over big at the Objectivist meeting last week. The Turkey Roast is sort of a cross between a “Star Trek” convention and an Ayn Rand discussion group.
Cryonics may just be the ultimate revenge of the nerds. Say what you might about the Alcorians, it’s obvious that they have thought this thing through. The group’s literature presents the arguments for cryonics clearly and methodically, anticipating objections and carefully distinguishing fact from speculation and plausibility from possibility. Alcor’s Cryonics magazine explores the topics that cryonicists never tire of discussing: cryobiological research, cloning, genetic manipulation, cures for aging, microbiology, nanotechnology, memory formation and storage, artificial intelligence, the definition of death, the nature of identity and consciousness.
Heavy. But the idea, in a nutshell (albeit a large nutshell), is this: The definition of death has always been arbitrary, varying with circumstance and medical technology. A heart-attack or drowning victim who would have been abandoned 100 years ago can now be resuscitated. It seems reasonable to assume that, 100 years (or so) from now, conditions currently deemed fatal will be completely curable. The trick is maintaining victims of cancer, AIDS, heart disease, or old age until then.
By “maintaining,” cryonicists mean preserving the structures of the brain that record your memory and personality. Only when these are lost are you truly, permanently, irrevocably dead. Otherwise, you are merely dormant, awaiting a technology sufficiently advanced to bring you back.
When Ettinger wrote The Prospect of Immortality, he was a little vague on just what this technology might be. He talked about installing artificial body parts, transplanting organs grown from cell cultures, and using “fabulous machines” to repair subtler damage. But his point was that it doesn’t matter. We don’t have to anticipate what marvelous advances the future might bring. We just have to be there when they happen.
Since then, however, cryonicists have pretty much decided that nanotechnology will be the way to go. That is, itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny machines, guided by powerful (but really small) computers, will repair individual cells of the body, curing disease, reversing aging, and fixing any damage done by freezing and defrosting. Don’t scoff. This is all in a respectable book called Engines of Creation, by K. Eric Drexler, an MIT graduate and a professor of computer science at Stanford University. Published in 1986, it was widely reviewed and became a big hit among futurists and technophiles.
Since nanomachines can manipulate individual atoms, they can build (or fix) virtually anything, given raw material and the right instructions. For example, they could rebuild a new body around your brain, reading out the required information from your genetic code. So preserving your whole body may be unnecessary. Like Donaldson, most Alcor members have opted instead for “neurosuspension,” the economy plan. (At Alcor, the minimum fee is $120,000 for a whole-body suspension, $41,000 for a neurosuspension.)
Drexler argues that nanomachines capable of cellular repair will be developed, with the aid of artificial intelligence programs, during the next century. Thus he does for Ettinger’s “freezer program” what the idea of genetic mutations did for Darwin’s theory of evolution: He suggests how it might really work.
Might, cryonicists stress, not will. Cryonics is a matter of probabilities. There are so many variables involved, however, that many cryonicists won’t even hazard a guess on the chances of success. Then again, some do. In the May 1989 issue of Cryonics, Alcor member Steven B. Harris estimates that the odds of revival are somewhere between 1 in 7 and 1 in 400.
As Harris notes, coming back from the freezer depends on a number of factors, of which the least uncertain is probably the development of those itsy-bitsy, teenyweeny machines. Other things to worry about: We don’t know exactly how the brain stores information (although long-term memory does seem to involve physical changes that persist even when the juice stops flowing). So we don’t know which structures are essential to identity.
Even if we did, we wouldn’t know whether freezing and defrosting a brain leaves those structures intact enough so that nanomachines could infer the brain’s original state. We don’t know how long Alcor, Trans Time, and the Cryonics Institute are going to be around to keep their clients frozen. We don’t know that nanotechnology will be cheap enough for the cost to be covered by the money they’ve set aside. Either way, we don’t know that future physicians will be curious or beneficent enough to bother reviving people.
In short, there’s a lot we don’t know. The cryonicists are candid about this. In exchange for your fee, “we’ll put forth our best-faith effort to keep you suspended as long as we can,” says Mike Darwin, a former medical technician who is Alcor’s research director. “Beyond that, we give no guarantees.” About 25 percent of the fee covers the cost of the suspension procedure. ‘The rest goes into a Patient Care Fund that generates interest to pay for maintenance, which consists mainly of replenishing liquid nitrogen. To improve their chances, most Alcor ,members leave extra money.
Darwin says this arrangement, which resembles “perpetual care” is a cemetery, is a big improvement on the way early cryonics groups operated. In the years following the publication of Ettinger ’s book, organizations intent on implementing his vision opened and folded like seats in a crowded theater at intermission. As Darwin describes it, families would come to the groups with recently deceased or nearly dead relatives and agree to pay for their shot at another life. Then, as grief faded and car payments, dental bills, and college tuition loomed, the customers would decide they had better things to do with their money, and they’d let Granny defrost.
Nowadays, Alcor insists on informed, rational consent. It rarely accepts suspendees on the verge of death, and it gets the money up front, usually from members’ life insurance policies. “I hope and pray we have addressed the key things that have caused other organizations to fail,” Darwin says. “But it’s still a long shot. It’s new. and there are a lot of uncertainties
Largely because it's new, the cryonics movement has had trouble with the government. Alcor, with about 200 suspension members, has attracted the most attention. Members of the other two major cryonics groups acknowledge this with a mixture of relief and resentment. Asked if Trans Time has had legal problems, its president, Art Quaife, laughs. “No,” he says. “We’ve kept our n nose clean. We stay out of trouble .... They’re paying a lot of attention to Alcor .... As long as they basically ignore us, we’re happy to be ignored.”
There’s considerable tension among the three organizations, stemming partly from differences in financial arrangements and suspension procedures. Only Alcor does neurosuspensions, for example. Ettinger’s Cryonics Institute charges only $28,000 for a whole-body suspension, largely because it doesn’t use sterile procedures. He reasons that when medical science can revive frozen bodies, dealing with a little infection will be a snap.
Ettinger says the Cryonics Institute, unlike Alcor, does not plan to attempt premortem suspensions-which improve the odds for victims of Alzheimer’s disease or other brain disorders as well as cancer patients like Donaldson evven though Michigan has no law against assisting suicide. “It’s a thicket we don’t want to get into,” he says. “We don’t really want to pay out large amounts of money in litigation, even in successful litigation.” Darwin estimates Alcor has spent about $1 million on legal fees in its various court battles-money raised from membership dues and contributions.
The litigation has largely been an effort to establish the legitimacy of cryonics. Regulators and law enforcement officials are not sure how to handle a group like Alcor. Is it a bunch of harmless weirdos who deserve toleration? Or is it a threat to law and order, a challenge to authority that must be stamped out?
In the Dora Kent case, Riverside County Coroner Ray Carillo tried both approaches, settling on the second. In the process, he transformed a paperwork oversight into a symbol of the cryonics movement’s resistance against bureaucratic interference. The episode is a source of both alarm and inspiration for those who support Donaldson’s fight.
Like her son Saul, Dora Kent was an early cryonics enthusiast. So after she became seriously ill, suffering from osteoporosis litigious and atherosclerosis as well as organic brain disease, Saul placed her in a nursing home near Alcor. On December 9, 1987, Kent received a call from the nursing home telling him his mother was near death from pneumonia. Rather than prolong her suffering with aggressive treatment, he had her transferred to Alcor the next day.
Although his 83-year-old mother had suffered brain damage, Kent was not sure how extensive it was. In any case, he says, “my position is that if someone wants this, it should be done regardless, especially if there’s any brain tissue at all Ieft.” He acknowledges, however, that “bringing my mother back would be an extreme challenge for future generations.”
Shortly after midnight on December 11, Dora Kent stopped breathing; her heart stopped beating a few minutes later. Since she was clinically dead, the Alcor staff proceeded with her neurosuspension, which involves administering protective drugs; opening the chest and attaching a heart-lung machine; running the blood through a heat exchanger to cool it; packing the body in water ice; replacing the blood with a tissue-preservative solution; removing the head-or, as cryonicists see it, removing the body; and gradually cooling the head to minus 196 degrees Celsius, the temperature of liquid nitrogen.
In their rush to preserve Dora Kent's brain, however, the Alcor personnel neglected to have her physician standing by to certify death. Instead, he signed the death certificate the next day. Because of this irregularity, the case was referred to the coroner’s office, which performed an autopsy on the body. On December 23, Darwin and Saul Kent met with two deputy coroners, who assured them that the case was closed.
“One of the coroners signs the death certificate, saying she died of pneumonia,” Kent says. “Everything is fine. The next day is Christmas Eve, and I’m home. At noon, there’s a knock at the door, and it’s a camera crew from NBC: ‘Could you comment on the fact that your mother may have been murdered?’ Out of nowhere.”
The autopsy had found metabolites of barbiturates in Dora Kent’s blood, possible evidence of foul play. But Alcor had already told the coroner’s office that the drugs were administered after clinical death to help preserve brain tissue, part of the standard suspension procedure. Kent suspects that Carillo, who was at first cooperative and understanding, got nervous. “We had done something which was inviting suspicion,” he says. “I think there was a fear that ... their superiors would get upset and say, ‘How can you just let people get away with this?’”
So Canllo called a press conference to announce a homicide investigation. At the conference, a deputy coroner suggested that Dora Kent might still have been alive when her head was cut off. This did not quite jibe with the theory that Alcor had killed her by injecting an overdose of barbiturates. Nor did it make sense in light of another assertion by the coroner’s office-that she was indeed clinically dead when her suspension began, but not brain dead. Nevertheless, the news media went wild. True or not, this was a great story.
So on January 7, 1988, the TV cameras were ready when coroner’s deputies raided Alcor with a search warrant. The main item on their list: Dora Kent’s head. It was nowhere to be found. “They threatened everybody in sight,’’ Kent says. “They threatened to thaw out the bodies. They threatened member for everything they could imagine to try to get someone to talk, and no one did.” So they handcuffed six Alcor members and hauled and a shot at them away, only to release them later that day. They also seized Alcor’s patient records.
On January 12, the coroner’s deputies were back, this time accompanied by UCLA police and a SWAT team. They occupied Alcor for two days, stripping it of supplies and equipment valued at tens of thousands of dollars. Alcor had purchased much of the equipment from the UCLA Surplus and Excess Property Department, and it still bore university tags. No one asked for documentation of ownership. The coroner’s office also seized prescription drugs, eight computers (with their manuals), all data-storage media (including software), and every computer printer, including the two used to produce Cryonics.
On February 1, Superior Court Judge Victor L. Miceli issued a temporary restraining order, later made permanent, enjoining Carillo from attempting to autopsy Dora Kent’s head. Among other things, he found there was “no evidence that Dora Kent was alive when she was decapitated.” Virtually all of the seized property was eventually returned. The six Alcor members who were taken into custody during the first raid have sued Riverside County for false arrest; an out-of-court settlement is expected.
(Carillo, by the way, is no longer Riverside County’s coroner. Before the Dora Kent case, he had gained notoriety by ostentatiously publicizing the cause of Liberace’s death- AIDS. After the unsuccessful Alcor raids, his office put a swift end to a homicide investigation by mistakenly allowing the body to be cremated. Later it was revealed that two of his assistants, a husband-and-wife team, had been performing autopsies on their backyard picnic table and keeping body parts in their garage. Carillo lost his re-election bid. The obvious lesson: Don’t mess with Liberace fans.)
Even after the coroner’s office had been thoroughly embarrassed, the Dora Kent investigation continued. In September 1989 the California Board of Medical Quality Assurance informed Alcor that the Riverside County district attorney’s office intended to prosecute the organization, not for murder, but for practicing medicine without a license. Alcor sued unsuccessfully for an injunction to prevent this, but the charges were never filed. Last November, Assistant District Attorney Don Inskeep told the Los Angeles Times that his office had dropped the case.
I know what you’re thinking, but you’re too polite to ask. While the coroner’s deputies were poking around at Alcor, where was the head? “Until the death certificate is changed, I’m not going to comment on that,” Kent says.
Today, Dora Kent's head resides in a cramped buildings in a Riverside industrial park, along with seven other heads and six bodies. If you happen to be in L.A., and Universal Studios is too crowded, you can see these and other attractions on the Alcor tour, which is free and available by appointment. The Alcor facility also includes an operating room with a lot of secondhand medical equipment and a row of supply cabinets against one wall. Just outside the operating room is a big chest that contains the silicone-oil bath used to cool suspendees to the temperature of dry ice. The same room serves as a laboratory for research aimed at improving suspension techniques. Ultimately, Alcor would like to achieve true suspended animation, which does no additional damage to the body or brain.
The tanks-or dewars, as Alcor calls them (as in Dewar flask, a kind of thermos used to store liquefied gases)-are in a small room off the laboratory. Darwin says the dewar lying on its side contains the body of James H. Bedford, the first person to be cryonically suspended. Bedford has been sealed in there since 1967, and he’s had an even more eventful journey (probably) than has Dora Kent’s head. He was frozen by the now defunct Cryonics Society of California, and he was moved from place to place, including at least one garage, before finding a home at Alcor. They’re not sure what kind of shape he’s in.
Darwin opens another dewar, this one upright, and invites visitors to climb up a ladder onto a platform and peer in. Beneath the fog of nitrogen vapor are two bodies wrapped in blue plastic sleeping bags (presumably rated for low temperatures), floating with heads downward. Dora Kent’s head is in a tank that resembles a hot tub covered by concrete. It holds nine metal canisters containing heads and tissue samples. Thomas Donaldson has reserved similar accommodations.
“I believe there are only eight patients in there, because we have some pets in there as well,” Darwin says.
I’ve heard about this, but I wasn’t sure whether to believe it. I ask the obvious question. “The whole pet?” “No. We do have a whole dog in that unit over there and another whole dog in that unit there. My childhood dog is in here. ”
“Just the head?”
“Just the head. Thomas Donaldson’s cat, Daisy, is in there, too. So...some have pets.” (It costs about $7,500 to suspend a pet.)
“Couldn’t you buy another pet in the future?” I suggest -- tactfully, I hope.
Darwin, who until now has been mild-mannered and friendly, gets a bit testy. “I love my dog. That was my childhood dog. That dog spent a lot of time with me. I thought the world of her. I thought more of her than I do of a lot of people.” After a pause, he is cordial again. “Look at it this way: If I make it into suspension, at least that’s one person I’m going to know someone who’ll be glad to see me.”
The 12-year-old daughter of Alcor’s accountant, who has come along for the tour, won’t let the matter drop. She has viewed the frozen bodies and heads with equanimity, but this upsets her. “That’s gross,” she says. How, she asks, did these pet owners know their dogs and cats wanted to be suspended? “You should keep in mind that those people who die and have pets, their pets end up getting put to sleep,” Darwin notes.
“That’s sick,” she says.
The city zoning authorities have different concerns about the Alcor facility. “We are technically here illegally, because the city of Riverside requires a conditional use permit,” Darwin says. “When we came here, we told them what we were doing. We said we were freezing people. And they said, ‘What’s that like?’ We said, ‘Well, it’s biomedical research.’You don’t need a CUP for biomedical research, but you do need one for storing body parts ... like a mortuary. And that’s what they’ve decided we’re most like. But we haven’t been able to get a CUP because the state of California has been telling everyone that we’re illegal.”
Without the permit, Alcor cannot expand; the current facility is designed to serve only about 80 people. The zoning controversy may be resolved, however, as a result of a court decision last fall. Superior Court Judge Arelio Muiioz ruled that people have a right to dispose of their remains however they wish. He found that California’s Uniform Anatomical Gift Act applies to cryonics, which therefore constitutes “scientific use,” a recognized way to dispose of bodies. He instructed the state Department of Health Services to register death certificates and issue body-disposition permits for Alcor members, which it had been refusing to do since May 1987. The state has appealed the ruling.
“The people running the health department really believe, as do many government officials, that if something isn’t [explicitly] permitted by law, it’s illegal,” Kent says. “They feel that unless people like them are overseeing an activity, it shouldn’t be permitted.”
In light of Alcor's regulatory problems-and, especially, in light of the Dora Kent case-Thomas Donaldson has good reason to fear that his prospect of immortality is in jeopardy. If the government obstructs Alcor’s attempts to suspend people after clinical death, it’s not likely to look kindly on premortem suspension, which is probably Donaldson’s only chance of preserving the essential structures of his brain. Indeed, the state has made it clear that it would consider the procedure to be assisted suicide at the very least, and perhaps murder.
At least one judge thinks otherwise. In 1989, when Alcor sought a court order to prevent the district attorney from charging the organization with unauthorized practice of medicine, Superior Court Judge Robert J. Timlin said he could not oblige. But he made a remarkable concession: “This court concludes that the adherents ... under Article I, Section 1 of the California Constitution and the Fifth and Ninth Amendments to the United States Constitution, have a right to privacy, which includes the right to exercise control over his or her own body and to determine whether to submit his or her body, or any portion thereof ... to premortem cryonic suspension.”
Donaldson would be surprised to hear such a ruling from California’s Second District Court of Appeals, where his case went after he lost in Superior Court last fall. “I’m basically pessimistic about the lawsuit, although 1 think it’s a good thing to pursue,” he says. There is some cause for hope. California’s constitution explicitly protects a right to privacy, and the Second District Court of Appeals has applied that right to euthanasia cases. In 1983 the court ruled that physicians who follow family instructions to remove feeding tubes from comatose patients cannot be prosecuted for murder. In two later cases, the court upheld the right of seriously ill (but not necessarily terminal) patients to have feeding tubes disconnected.
Donaldson’s attorneys, David Epstein and Christopher Ashworth, also cite the cases of Karen Quinlan and Nancy Cruzan, in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that, where the patient’s wishes are clear, families may disconnect life support from comatose relatives. They note that the highest courts of 10 states have upheld the right of terminally ill patients to hasten their deaths.
Epstein argues that there is no principled distinction between “passive” suicide by starvation or dehydration and the “active” suicide that Donaldson seeks. He quotes Justice Antonin Scalia’s concurring opinion in Cruzan v. Missouri: “It would not make much sense to say that one may not kill oneself by walking into the sea, but may sit on the beach until submerged by the incoming tide; or that one may not intentionally lock oneself into a cold storage locker, but may refrain from coming indoors when the temperature drops below freezing.
Epstein concludes: “The only material distinction between lawful assistance and murder is plaintiff’s consent. Absent such consent, neither would be any more or less a crime because it was either ‘passive’ or ‘active.’ ”
If the court rejects this argument and refuses to allow tangible assistance, Alcor proposes to instruct Donaldson on how to inject himself with a lethal overdose. Epstein maintains that applying California’s law against assisting suicide to such speech would be a violation of the First Amendment. He also argues that the law is unconstitutional on its face, both because it is vague and because suicide itself is not a criminal act.
If Donaldson loses his case and further appeals are unsuccessful, he plans to starve himself to death. At least two Alcor members have already gone this route, including a cancer patient who died after 10 days. It’s perfectly legal, and terminal patients who die this way are generally not autopsied. “It’s not a very nice thing,” Donaldson says. “But it looks like what I’d have to do if I lose the case.” Donaldson recognizes that his suit is destined to be known as a right-to-die case, but he doesn’t see it that way. “There are two different views of what’s going on,” he says. “There’s the cryonicist view, and there’s the public view. The public view decides that this is suicide, so we’re suing for the right to commit suicide. The cryonicist view is that we’re suing for the right to cryonic suspension, which is the very opposite of suicide.”
Although he supports a broad right to die, Donaldson does not approve of euthanasia-given the alternative of suspension- and he distances himself from organizations such as the Hemlock Society. “My aim is my suspension,” he says. “If other people with, I believe, quite fallacious ideas try to use my case for some other purpose, that is not my affair.
Donaldson and others members of the movement are puzzled and frustrated by people who will not or cannot adjust their world views to take account of the opportunities offered by cryonics. As Ettinger puts it with characteristic fervor in the foreword to The Prospect of Immortality: “A great many people have to be coaxed into admitting that life is better than death, healthy is better than sick, smart is better than stupid, and immortality might be worth the trouble!”
Those who are taking the trouble see life from a different perspective than most of us. “People have asked me how I felt when I was told that I had this tumor that had a high probability of killing me,”, Donaldson says. “I had already confronted my own death, [so] the first thing I thought was, Well, I guess it’s come sooner for me than I expected. The second thing I thought was that arranging for my suspension was the best decision I’d ever made in my life.”
Like other cryonicists, Donaldson combines a sometimes unsettling intensity with a surprising sense of humor. During his appearance on “Donahue” last July, he stressed that Alcor’s frozen clients are patients, not corpses. “The reason they’re patients is because we don’t think they’re dead. And we’re right, OK? And all those people who think that they are dead, they’re wrong, OK?”
Later in the show, however, Donaldson found a subtler way to express his differences with conventional wisdom. He was pressing a bioethicist to look at cryonic suspension as a risky sort of medical treatment. When the doctor danced around the question, Donaldson interrupted him. “I would like to continue,” the bioethicist snapped. “I, too,” Donaldson said. “I, too.”
Jacob Sullum is assistant editor of Reason.