End of life issues have certainly been in the news lately, no doubt reflecting the concerns of our ever-growing senior population.
The most unusual news item, however, a three-page spread in the New York Times, didn’t involve a senior at all, but rather a young woman who had died of brain cancer. While she was still living, she and her boyfriend, appalled at the prospect of such an early death, chose to have her brain frozen after death in the hope that she might one day be brought back to life.
This service, known as cryonics, is offered by the Alcor Life Extension Foundation of Scottsdale, Arizona. According to the firm’s website, a life insurance policy of at least $200,000 is required to sign up for whole-body preservation, but only $80,000 is needed for “neuropreservation,” that is, freezing the head alone. To date, 141 individuals, whom the firm calls “patients,” have been preserved, but 1,027 foundation members have completed the full legal and financial requirements for cryopreservation. Another organization, the Cryonics Institute, has 100 “patients currently in cryostasis” and 1,100 members worldwide.
The cryonics movement is yet another example of the quest for literal immortality that has motivated humanity since the days of Gilgamesh. (See this blog’s review of the fascinating book, The Worm at the Core.) Great religions have been founded on this quest, but so far, no one has reported back from the other side. The cryonics claim is that science can change the result, perhaps by an actual bodily resurrection as new discoveries are made, or perhaps by downloading “the mind,” absent the body, to a computer or robot.
It is odd how closely these claims for science echo those of religion. Bodily resurrection is promised by many faiths, and many also subscribe to the existence of a soul that lives on after the body is gone. Those of us who take a common sense approach to aging and death are likely to be skeptical of all such claims. But who knows? Maybe the cryonics believers will have the last laugh.
Let’s just hope that someone remembers to look in the icebox. A recent climate study shows that unless the burning of fossil fuels is halted, the sea will rise by more than 200 feet in a thousand years, destroying major cities and disrupting civilization on a global scale. That’s just one scenario that might tend to distract attention from an old, cold collection of cadavers and frozen heads.
Friday’s decision by the California state legislature to approve aid-in-dying legislation has more immediate interest for common sense seniors. Whether Governor Brown will sign the bill into law is not known at this point, but it includes important safeguards to prevent someone from making an impulse decision or from being pressured into an early death.
The legislation allows a dying person to obtain a prescription for a lethal dose of sedatives, but only if two physicians certify after private consultation that he or she has six months or less to live. Dying persons would have to be mentally competent to make their own health care decisions in order to obtain the prescription, and submit one written as well as two oral requests for the prescription at least 15 days apart. The law expires after ten years, giving the legislature another opportunity to look at the issue and correct any problems.
Not very many people are likely to seek the prescriptions. In Oregon, the pioneer in aid-in-dying legislation, only 105 out of 34,000 people who died in 2013 chose to use lethal sedatives. Nonetheless, from a common sense point of view, it’s good to have options. A friend once told me that her father had moved to Vermont, another aid-in-dying state, for just that reason. He didn’t plan on suicide but drew comfort from knowing that the option was there if he needed it.
I don’t think I’ll be taking a flyer on having my mind downloaded onto someone’s laptop in the far distant future. I also doubt that I’ll be taking a lethal prescription in the much nearer end-of-life future either. But I can’t know what sort of situation I’ll find myself in. I too would like to have the lethal prescription option.