LONDON (AP) – The teenage girl’s instructions were direct: She didn’t want to be buried, but to be frozen – with the hope she can continue her life in the future when cancer is cured.
“I want to live and live longer and I think that in the future they may find a cure for my cancer and wake me up,” the 14-year-old wrote to a British judge before her recent death.
She said “being cryo-preserved gives me a chance to be cured and woken up – even in hundreds of years’ time.”
Her plaintive words convinced High Court Judge Peter Jackson to grant her final wishes in what he called the first case of its kind in England – and possibly the world.
The judge said the girl had chosen the most basic preservation option at a cost of about 37,000 pounds ($46,000).
The girl’s divorced parents disagreed about the procedure, with the mother favoring it and the father initially saying no, though he softened his stance as his daughter’s death neared.
The girl, who along with her parents can’t be named for legal reasons, asked the court to designate that only her mother could dispose of her remains so that she could be cryogenically preserved, an unproven technique that some people believe may allow frozen bodies to be brought back to life in the future.
The concept is regarded with widespread skepticism by many in the medical community.
Barry Fuller, a specialist in low-temperature medicine at University College London, said the technology of preserving cells at ultra-low temperatures is promising but cannot yet be applied to large structures like a human kidney.
“At the moment we have no objective evidence that a whole human body can survive cryopreservation with cells which will function after re-arming,” he said, referring to the process of re-activating cells in the future.
He said there is ongoing research with the immediate hope that scientists could use the technology to preserve human organs for transplantation. He said that would be “a major first step into proving the concept.”
The judge called the case unprecedented.
“It is no surprise that this application is the only one of its kind to have come before the courts in this country – and probably anywhere else,” Jackson said, calling the case “an example of the new questions that science poses to the law.”
The judge made the ruling in October, and imposed restrictions on any media coverage while the girl was still alive out of respect for her stated desire for privacy.
His ruling cleared the way for the girl’s remains to be taken to a specialist facility in the U.S. for the start of the preservation process.
The girl was too ill to attend court proceedings, but Jackson visited her in a hospital. He said he was impressed by the “valiant way” she dealt with her impending death from a rare form of cancer. He said she spent her final months researching cryonics on the internet.
Jackson said his decision was based on resolving the dispute between the parents and did not represent a finding on cryogenic preservation.
He seemed focused on the girl’s expressed desire, even though she was too young to write a legally binding will.
“I don’t want to be buried underground,” she wrote at the end of her note. “I want to have this chance. This is my wish.”
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.