SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The body of perhaps the greatest hitter in baseball history, Hall of Famer Ted Williams, is now suspended upside-down in a 9-foot vat of liquid nitrogen at minus 320 degrees, sharing his resting place with three other corpses and five heads.
Williams' death on July 5 at age 83 and the widely reported family feud that has ensued have unexpectedly elevated the profile of cryonics – the peculiar, fringe practice of freezing a dead body to preserve it for the future when, with new technologies and medical advances, it might be “resuscitated.” It has also raised the specter of a future in which the dead can be cloned.
The premiere outfit in human cryonics (though it does have competition) is the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Ariz. It offers clients the service of preserving their body in liquid nitrogen for $120,000. Or if they prefer, they can have just their head frozen at a reduced rate of $50,000. The nonprofit organization promises to hold these parts indefinitely (with backup energy systems in case of power outages) until such time when doctors can revive the persons and provide them with a brand-new laboratory-grown body or repair the old corpse through the use of still-undeveloped nanotechnology and molecular genetics “to enjoy youth and health indefinitely.”
Actually, “corpse” is a word Alcor officials shun. Alcor calls its customers “patients” and says on its Web site: “[P]ersons in cryonic suspension should be considered potentially ‘alive’ now and measures must be taken to keep them that way, so they can become the citizens of the future.”
Beloved Boston Red Sox slugger Williams became “citizen” No. 50 of Alcor at the request of his son John Henry Williams. But the thought of her father's icy grave has pained Barbara Joyce Williams-Ferrell, the daughter of his first marriage who claims her father wanted to be cremated and who is seeking a judge in Florida's Citrus County Court to order her father's remains retrieved from Alcor.
Williams-Ferrell told reporters her half-brother, John Henry Williams, has visions of medicine being able to resurrect her father to play a few more innings, perhaps a century from now. Or perhaps he might sell the “Splendid Splinter's” DNA to in-vitro fertilization customers who would like “little Ted Williamses” of their own, hitting .400 through technological wizardry-like cloning.
Alcor president Jerry Lemler could not be reached for comment, but he has publicly denied that his company will provide samples of its dead, frozen “patients” for cloning.
Alcor's scientific advisory board, however, is headed by Michael West, president and CEO of Advanced Cell Technology, the renegade Massachusetts company trying to mass-produce cloned human embryos to cull for their stem cells and a leading spokesman for human cloning.
Cloning the dead is not purely hypothetical. Scientists have already cloned dead animals using living cells culled from their bodies shortly after death, rapidly cooled in liquid nitrogen to attempt to prevent damaging ice crystal formation (just the sort of technology employed on slugger Williams' body.)
And Italian researchers reported in the July issue of the journal Biology of Reproduction that they created cloned lambs from dead sheep cells. The researchers at the University of Teramo and other institutions first killed the lamb cells by exposing them to extremes of temperature, then cloned them.
As for cloning dead humans, “scientifically, it's possible,” said David Prentice, professor of medical and molecular genetics at Indiana State University School of Medicine. “What you need is all of the genetic material of the person you want to clone.”
But securing a usable DNA sample is only the first step, he added. Beyond that, the odds against any human clone begin to soar. Considering risks of malformation, miscarriage and death shortly after birth, Prentice said, “It's unsafe to be a clone. Your chances of survival are very slim.”
Poor odds have not deterred some who wish to clone the dead, however. It's difficult to estimate how many people would be interested in cloning their deceased relatives, but their numbers probably rank somewhere between those of infertile couples who want to use cloning technology and homosexuals who want to clone themselves.
One of the first to try to try it was Mark Hunt, a Charleston, W.Va., attorney and former state legislator who lost his 10-month-old baby boy, born in 1999. Andrew Hunt died following surgery to correct a random heart defect.
In his grief, Hunt turned to the Raelians – a bizarre Montreal-based international sex cult that preaches extraterrestrials cloned humans in a lab aboard their flying saucers – and asked them to clone his dead son from a tissue sample. Hunt financed the cult, reportedly to the tune of $5,000 a month in addition to money he spent outfitting a former high school science room as a high-tech cloning lab, including a $100,000 in-vitro fertilization microscope used to facilitate injecting DNA into a human egg.
Hunt did not return phone calls from the Register, but in a letter he sent to Congress in the spring of 2001 during hearings on cloning, he explained his quest to clone Andrew: “I couldn't accept that it was over for our child. And for the first time in history we couldn't accept death as the end. Not since our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ spoke to Lazarus and told him to come forth from the grave has a human had a chance to bridge the great gulf of death. I hope and pray that my son will be the first.”
Others who want to clone dead relatives do not seem as motivated by grief. Jim, a 49-year-old Glendale, Calif., man who did not want his real name identified, is storing a tissue sample from his dead mother so he might clone her in the future.
“She was a very special woman,” he explained in an interview last fall. When his 68-year-old mother died of pancreatic cancer in February 2001, he and his siblings scoured the underground human cloning network for a doctor willing to take the tissue sample and then paid a cryopreservation company that advertises on the Internet to store it until the day he is certain will eventually arrive – when new technology can be used to create her identical twin.
His mother had musical and other talents that were not fully actualized, Jim said. “There were definitely some possibilities that she didn't consider because of her circumstances. We might send her clone to college.”
Jim spoke matter-of-factly about the possibility of “being a father to my mother, or perhaps her uncle if one of my sisters decides to raise her.”
Indiana State's Prentice said he thinks such cloning enthusiasts would be disappointed if the technology was realized. “Physically, a cloned person might resemble the donor,” he said, “but it would be a different person.”
There is a misplaced faith in the idea of “genetic determinism,” Prentice added, pointing to the first cloned cat born this spring, whose markings and color differ from those of the cat she was cloned from. Those differences would be much more pronounced among humans. “We're just much more than the sum total of our genes,” he said.
There is also, of course, the moral question of cloning anyone, including the dead. Doug Hunt, spokesman for the International Center for Technical Assessment, thinks cloning would violate cloned humans' dignity and rights, exposing them to unrealistic expectations. “We have a right to an open future,” Hunt said.
The quest to clone, to “engineer children to specification,” Hunt views as “the ultimate idolatry – worshiping technology.”
“It harkins back to the desire to control the real nature of human life,” he said, but “we don't have control.”
And what about the morality of freezing people, like slugger Williams, in liquid nitrogen?
Father Joseph Browne, the pastor of St. Birgitta's parish in Portland, Ore., doesn't believe that moral theologians have formally addressed cryonics.
Under the title “respect for the dead,” however, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “The bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity, in faith and hope of the resurrection.” It further states that “burial of the dead is a corporal work of mercy” and that “the Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body.”
“I would suspect that the Church would frown on [cryonics], not because of the technology per se, but because of the underlying belief that the body might be reunited with the soul,” Father Browne said.
“The Church does indeed believe that at death there is the separation of the soul from the body,” he said. “And it holds that at the resurrection, the soul is reunited to the body.”
But faith in cryonics, Father Browne said, seems to deny both the death of the body and the true resurrection of the soul.
Celeste McGovern writes from Portland, Oregon.