Cryonics isn't illegal here, but advertising is.
Image: Xavier Aaronson
In the province of British Columbia, you can buy weed from a vending machine and marry someone of the same sex, but cryonically preserving yourself is practically illegal.
Although the procedure itself is not outlawed, the government made it illegal in 1990 to advertise or market the sale of a cryonic arrangement—lest anyone believe they might one day have the chance to be brought back to life.
But in light of the Supreme Court of Canada's landmark ruling in favour of assisted suicide earlier this year, shouldn't those living in the province have the right to decide what to do with their future selves too? Transhumanists, obviously, believe that the law is unconstitutional, and have been hoping for years to overturn the law in court.
Carrie Wong is president of the Lifespan Society of BC, and is leading one such campaign to challenge the province's anti-cryonics law.
"Now it's legal to get assistance with end-of-life. Now people can choose how they want to go," said Wong. "Our case is similar. It's a violation of our constitutional rights. [...] People have the right to believe it whatever they want to believe about the afterlife."
"A person must not offer for sale, or sell, an arrangement for the preservation or storage of human remains that is based on cryonics"
Christine Gaspar, leader of the Cryonics Society of Canada, said that society founder Ben Best and other members of the cryonics community have tried to discover the reasoning behind this puzzling law in the past, but to no avail. "It just sort of appeared," she said. "Ben tried to research it and made calls but nobody gave him a clear answer of who wrote it and why. Nobody questioned it, and it was quietly passed because there were no advocates for or against cryonics."
According to Section 14 of the Cremation, Interment and Funeral Services Act, "A person must not offer for sale, or sell, an arrangement for the preservation or storage of human remains that is based on (a) cryonics, (b) irradiation, or (c) any other means of preservation or storage, by whatever name called,and that is offered, or sold, on the expectation of the resuscitation of human remains at a future time."
The province is the only place in North America that has anti-cryonic laws. In the United States, nothing prevents an individual from advertising, seeking out, or performing cryonic arrangements. Canadians in other provinces can also be cryopreserved, but must go through American agencies to have the procedure done, as no Canadian agency currently exists.
Wong's group, which is funded by the Florida-based Life Extension Foundation, plans to present a series of affidavits written by doctors and transhumanists in the community. The hope to begin a trial within the next six to 12 months. Constitutional rights lawyer Jason Gratl is advising Lifespan and assisting with the case.
For decades, the law has hindered western Canadians who want to transcend the boundaries of flesh and embark on arguably the greatest journey of all: potential immortality. The legal complexities of cryonic arrangements in BC make funeral professionals extremely uncomfortable and oftentimes unwilling to assist in anything cryonically related—even though the majority of procedures will be carried out in the United States.
Tatiana Chabeaux-Smith is the marketing and corporate communications manager for Consumer Protection BC, a regulator of the Funeral Services. She told Motherboard that they have no say in the laws that government has set forth.
"Simply put, the law does not prohibit funeral directors in BC from performing preparation and transport services related to a cryonic arrangement assuming that these services are in compliance with provincial health regulations and human remains transfer regulations," wrote Chabeaux in an e-mail. "However, they must not do so with the expectation of resuscitation of the human remains at a future date."
Resuscitation, however, is a loaded term. We perform life-extending medical procedures every day, from experimental surgeries to radical health supplements. So why is the field of cryonics still so wildly unpopular as a health experiment that could extend many happy, full years of life? And why isn't cryonics viewed as an extension of healthy living and a cure for aging and disease?
Dr. Max More, the chief executive officer of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation said that while transhumanists are hopeful that cryonics will be successful, it's an experiment 40 years in the making that makes no promises. But at the very least, it offers a better shot at resuming life than being cremated or buried.
"We like living, in general, it's true," More said over the phone. "If this works, it's an indefinite amount of more life." Experts are hopeful that we will be able to reanimate people within the next century or so.
"Meat isn't the best platform for being a person. To the extent we preserve meat, it will be a pretty modified meat"
Aside from the legal and ethical issues that surround cryonics, the question of whether or not we'd save our brains, or our bodies, is an interesting one when you consider what constitutes a person. What option would a whole-body patient have upon resuscitation in the future? And how is that going to be different than someone who only wanted to preserve their brain?
Dr. James Hughes from the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies believes we stopped being human about 100,000 years ago when we invented fire and became reliant on technology to survive. According to Dr. Hughes, cyronic patients, if successfully reanimated in the future, could have many more options in terms of identity and physicality than ever before.
"Meat isn't the best platform for being a person. To the extent we preserve meat, it will be a pretty modified meat," Dr. Hughes said. " We'll have a lot of Kurzweilian robots doing things we relied on the meat to do."
His cyborg-Buddhist philosophy envisions a future where the body will be a spectrum of materials, and in which we'll be able to modify our feelings and personalities according to our tastes. "We'll likely evolve into many different types, from the purely cybernetic to the purely organic," Dr. Hughes said.
As of yet, nobody has complied to being cryopreserved before they die; the process always occurs after the patient has passed away. "The procedure we do," explains More, "would kill them, and we'd be guilty of homicide." But that could change soon, as the right to assisted suicide is increasingly legalized across North America. Technically, the chances of cryopreservation working would increase if it was done this way; if someone had a brain tumour, they'd want to be cryopreserved sooner than later, before the disease could take its toll.
If this is the kind of future that's feasible, then it shouldn't be impossible for people to seek cryonic preservation out. If we have the freedom to choose how we live, choose when we die, then it only makes sense we should have the constitutional and legal freedom to access how we could potentially live in the future too.
Goodbye, Meatbags is a series on Motherboard about the waning relevance of the human physical form. Follow along here.