Who could fail to be moved by the story that emerged in Asuncion, Paraguay last weekend, of the baby boy Angel Salvador born 16 week premature? Doctors declared the boy to be dead shortly after birth. But four hours later, when family member Liliana Alvarenga removed the baby’s body from a cardboard box to dress it ahead of burial, the baby started crying. The baby was not dead after all.
The baby’s grandfather, Guarani Caceres, was certainly moved. He said of the doctors at the hospital, “they are criminals”.
Knowing when someone is “dead beyond all chance of recovery” can be a tough problem. History contains many horrific accounts of premature burials. A short list includes:
- The grammarian and metaphysician, Johannes Duns Scotus died in Cologne in 1308. When the vault his corpse resided in was opened later he was found lying outside the coffin.
- Thomas A Kempis died in 1471 and was denied canonization because splinters were found embedded under his nails. Anyone aspiring to be a saint would not fight death if he found himself buried alive!
- Ann Green was hanged by the neck until dead – or so they thought – in 1650 at Oxford She was found to be alive after being placed in a coffin for burial. One kindly gentleman attempted to assist her back to the land of the dead by raising his foot and stamping her chest and stomach with such severe force that he only succeeded in completely reviving her. She lived a long life and bore several children.
- Virginia Macdonald was buried in a Brooklyn cemetery in 1850. Her mother was so persistent that she had been buried alive that authorities finally relented and raised her coffin. The lid was opened to find that her delicate hands had been badly bitten and she was lying on her side.
- When the Les Innocents cemetery in Paris, France was moved from the center of the city to the suburbs the number of skeletons found face down convinced the lay people and several doctors that premature burial was very common.
(One source for many of these points is the book “Death: A History of Man’s Obsessions and Fears” by Robert Wilkins.)
Changes in technology are on the point of throwing a big new twist on this age-old problem. We have to bear in mind, not only the power of present-day medicine to revive someone from near-deadly diseases and traumas, but also the significantly greater power of future medicine. The practice of cryonics is focused on preserving the body of someone who has many of the signs of death, in a state so that there is at least a chance that, at some time in the future, the body can be revived and cured of whatever disease or trauma was inflicting it. Of course, it’s a controversial topic.
And there are at least two big legal and ethical issues that are bound to be discussed more and more often, in connection with cryonics. These issues potentially apply to anyone who believes in cryonics and who makes provision for the preservation of their body at around the time of death.
The first issue is when medical professionals or other officials demand the right to autopsy the person following death. To quote from the website “Autopsy choice“:
Autopsy is a process of cutting open the body and removing all organs for examination. The organs are [later] placed together to the chest cavity and the wounds are sown up and the body made presentable for the funeral profession…
Advantages are that the medical profession has information for research and quality control, and the legal profession has information for research which it may be able to use in cases of crime or professional misconduct…
Nevertheless, some individuals because of religious or moral belief, would prefer not to be autopsied.
Indeed, anyone signed up for cryonics needs to give careful consideration to avoiding the risk of being autopsied in any way that significantly reduce the chances of subsequent revivification. An autopsy that destroys the brain is particularly to be feared. The Cryonics Insitute has a useful webpage “Avoiding Autopsy for Cryonics” on this topic. Evidently, there’s a potential “clash of rights”:
- The right of the state, to conduct an autopsy in order to advance knowledge beneficial to society as a whole;
- The right of any individual, who is alive or potentially revivable, not to be treated in a way that destroys the potential for life.
Depending on the degree of credence that society is prepared to give to the possibility that future technology could revive someone who has recently died, this balance of rights is bound to change.
The second issue is if an individual wishes to start the body preservation process even before the medical profession is ready to declare them as dead. For example, someone whose brain is deteriorating under dementia may feel that their chances for eventual full mental recovery will be better if they are cryogenically vitrified sooner rather than later.
This seems close to the case of someone seeking the right to “assisted suicide“. That’s already a hot potato! But many of the same arguments apply for what we might term “early cryonic suspension”.
I’m expecting both these issues to receive increasing public debate. My hope is that the debate avoids being hijacked by any claims that “death is natural and inevitable”. If society is prepared to grant certain respect and concessions to people with a variety of religious beliefs, it should also be prepared to grant certain respect and concessions to people who sincerely believe that cyronics might be a pathway to life beyond death.
At some not-too-distant future date, if post-cryonic revival is successfully demonstrated in a laboratory, there may be many more people venting the same kind of anger expressed by Guarani Caceres, denouncing as “criminals” the people who interfered with access to cryonics procedures for their dead relatives.
Footnote: The story of baby Angel Salvador did not have a happy ending. Shortly after his apparently miraculous recovery, he lost the fight to live. Medical staff explained that he had now died as his vital organs were not strong enough to survive. It’s not clear if the four hours the baby spent in the cardboard box (instead of a hospital incubator) contributed to these organ failures.