Regulating the Biggest Chill

Consumer protection for decapitated heads


Arizona's state legislature is about to consider one of the silliest pieces of "consumer protection" legislation ever devised. Earlier this month, Arizona state legislator Bob Stump (R-Peoria) coolly introduced a bill aimed at regulating the activities of the nation's largest cryonics facility, the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, under the authority of the Arizona Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers.

Alcor is currently cryopreserving about 60 patients at its Scottsdale, Arizona, facility. Another 700 people have made arrangements to be deep frozen when the Grim Reaper comes for them. Cryonicists believe that by freezing brains they are preserving neurological information for future retrieval, when advanced technologies for reviving corpses have been developed.

Is this proposed legislation a reaction to complaints from cryonics consumers? Not likely, since consumers currently enjoying cryonics services are usually severed heads sitting in liquid nitrogen Dewar vessels frozen at -321 degrees Fahrenheit. Stump argues that his bill is designed to protect the interests of the families of the cryopreserved.

"We have no way of reassuring families and the public that their loved one's remains are being treated with the utmost care and dignity," claimed Stump in the Arizona Republic. (Stump's bill has garnered 50 co-sponsors so far.) Of course, none of the surviving loved ones of the cryopreserved have complained either, though Stump's bill appears to be fallout from the unlovely family fight over freezing baseball legend Ted Williams' head and body at the Alcor facility in 2002. Last summer, Sports Illustrated published a lurid article about Williams' cryopreservation, declaring that his head has been "drilled with holes" and "accidentally cracked as many as 10 times."

In an open letter opposing the legislation, cryonics researcher and biophysicist Brian Wowk explains that the Foundation's standard "neuropreservation" techniques involve drilling two small holes in the skull in order to monitor the freezing process. In addition, Wowk reports that so far the process of freezing large organs causes some unavoidable internal fracturing. In this case, as with all other cryopreserved patients, it's Williams' brain that sustained fractures, not his head. If future advanced technologies can eventually revive frozen brains and bodies, stitching together fractured tissue will be the least of the problems solved. However ghoulish the cryonic procedure might sound to the squeamish, what could be more caring and dignified than trying to arrange to bring your dead loved ones back to life someday?

One could argue that cryonics operations defraud people by definition. After all, nobody has ever reanimated a human body that was frozen in liquid nitrogen. Having attended an Alcor conference, and met many people who plan to use Alcor's services, it is clear to me that they have been thinking about whether or not the cryonics option is worth it for a long time. The conference I attended went deeply into the gory details about how bodies are cryonically preserved. In a sense, cryonicists are engaging in a kind of 21st century Pascal's Wager.

French philosopher Blaise Pascal argued that people should "bet" on believing in God because all they would be risking is the loss of a few finite pleasures in the here and now in exchange for infinite bliss in heaven. Similarly cryonicists are foregoing the pleasures they may have had with the money they spend on cryonics in the hope of enjoying an extended lifespan in the future. Cryonicists may be deluded dreamers who are making a bad bet, but they are not harming or defrauding anyone.

In the end, it does seem singularly inappropriate to put people in the death business in charge of regulating a group that believes it's in the life business. "There's no difference between cryonics and cremation," asserted an unsympathetic Rudy Thomas, director of the Arizona Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers, in the Arizona Capitol Times. He added, "You're gone forever." Thomas' real goal is more nakedly revealed in a quote that appeared in The New York Times on Oct 14, 2003: "These companies need to be regulated or deregulated out of business." Far from protection for frozen heads, this looks like just another attempt to use government to restrict competition—because, in a devoutly-to-be-wished world where cryonics dreams come true, the undertakers, and their regulators, will be out of business. And good riddance.