Misunderstandings about cryonics can sometimes lead to disputes. Today’s medical and legal practice usually pronounces a human “dead” when their heart stops beating. Alcor views its members as “dead” only after they meet the information-theoretic criterion of death, that is, only after their brain has been obliterated to the point where it is clear that inference of their memory and personality is in principle no longer possible, even by the most advanced medical technology that might be developed in future centuries. Alcor believes that cryopreservation can prevent this form of death. The purpose of cryonics is therefore to prevent dying people from dying, which is not how most people presently think about cryonics.
While Alcor members wish today’s legal, social and medical organizations would accept cryonics as a legitimate medical treatment that any terminally ill patient could choose, this is not the case. The accommodation we have reached is that Alcor members have the legal right to be cryopreserved after they are declared “legally dead,” but not before. In practice this means we can be cryopreserved after our heart has stopped beating. While far from ideal, cessation of heartbeat usually occurs at a point in time well before information-theoretic death has occurred, meaning that cryopreservation after “legal death,” but before information-theoretic death, can be a way of saving our lives.
Unfortunately, sometimes traditional practices and perceptions of death can lead to interference with a patient’s right to be cryopreserved. Hospitals will sometimes refuse to cooperate with Alcor. Grieving sons, daughters, brothers and sisters who are already feeling great stress might not understand the decision to be cryopreserved made by parents or siblings. They might not even have heard about the decision until confronted with it by Alcor staff, which can add to the shock and stress. Relatives might fight among themselves about how to respond to the cryonics arrangements, and sometimes stand to inherit significant assets if they can successfully block cryopreservation.
When anyone for any reason tries to block the timely cryopreservation of an Alcor member, Alcor has only a few options. Obviously, the best option is to try to “talk them down.” This often works, and we’ve gotten pretty good at it. When it doesn’t, we have to turn to lawyers and courts. Again, we try to negotiate a settlement, as this minimizes everyone’s risk and everyone’s costs. We’ve gotten pretty good at this, too, and are often able to avoid court cases and their costs. But when these don’t work, we have to pursue litigation. Sadly, we’ve gotten pretty good at this, as well. We must do so to fulfill our mission, to fulfill our contractual obligation to our members, and most importantly to save our member’s life. The member being cryopreserved is often a longtime friend, or an acquaintance, or friend of a friend. And every time, each one of us is thinking in the back of our minds: “What will happen when it’s my turn? What will Alcor do if someone tries to block my cryopreservation?”
And speed is critical. Once someone has been pronounced “dead”, the clock is ticking. Speed both limits the available options and makes negotiations harder. There’s no time to let upset relatives calm down, there’s no time to work out additional and possibly more complex options that somehow accommodate everyone’s concerns — things need to happen, and they need to happen quickly. Lawyers are called and told to prepare “in case we can’t negotiate an agreement.” Intransigent relatives are told that if they don’t agree to a compromise quickly they’re going to be facing a lawsuit Monday morning.
All this is done under heavy time pressure, while dealing with grief, stress, money, and a new definition of death. Given all this, it’s hardly surprising that Alcor’s name appears in litigation, and that sometimes relatives say unkind and wildly inaccurate things about us. Sometimes a public official, politician, or other person will see the noise and confusion and conclude that they can pick up some easy votes, favorable publicity, or a few dollars in book and magazine sales by attacking Alcor. This has proven to be a mistake. We take such attacks very seriously, and are forced to spend valuable time and resources in countering them. We much prefer to avoid these conflicts if at all possible.
For information about how Alcor members can help minimize the chance of hostile interference by family members or third parties, and thereby significantly reduce litigation risks, costs, and delays, see the article How to Protect Your Cryonics Arrangements from Interference by Third Parties.