The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A 14-year-old won a legal battle to be ‘frozen.’ She hopes to one day be woken up.

Black and white illustration of a woman sleeping. (iStock)

LONDON — A terminally ill teenager was granted her dying wish by Britain’s High Court to be frozen in hopes she can later be brought back to life.

A 14-year-old British girl, who was terminally ill with cancer and died last month, was supported by her mother to be frozen in the United States — cryonic preservation is not available in Britain — but her estranged father initially opposed the idea but later relented.

In what is the first legal case of its kind in Britain, the teen told the judge she didn’t want to be buried, but instead wanted her body to be preserved so she could potentially be brought back to life.

Cryonic preservation is a controversial and unproven process where immediately after death the body is cooled to ultralow temperatures. There is no evidence that an entire body can be frozen and later revived, but some people see the mere chance of one day waking up, however slim, a preferable option to certain death. The list of those taking the chance includes baseball great Ted Williams and Robert Ettinger, who founded a cryonic center in Michigan after reading a sci-fi story in the 1960s about reanimating a person from a deep freeze.

Although the girl was too ill to attend court in person, she said in a letter to the judge: “I am only 14 years old and I don't want to die, but I know I am going to die. I think being cryopreserved gives me a chance to be cured and woken up — even in hundreds of years' time.”

“I want to live and live longer and I think that in the future they may find a cure for my cancer and wake me up,” she added.

Her father disagreed at first with the idea, but the London teenager launched a legal challenge arguing that her mother should be able to decide what happens to her remains after she died.

Judge Peter Jackson visited the girl in the hospital and ruled in her favor shortly before she died in October. The girl’s name has not been released and the media restrictions on the case were lifted Friday.

The judge’s ruling concerned the dispute between the girl’s parents, who are divorced, not about the rights surrounding cryonics. But the judge said that the case raised issues about the cryonic preservation that could need regulating in the future.

“It is no surprise that this application is the only one of its kind to have come before the courts in this country, and probably anywhere else,” he said, adding that it was an example of “the new questions that science poses to the law.”

The girl’s father initially objected to the procedure, saying that even if she were brought back in 200 years “she may not find any relative and she might not remember things and she may be left in a desperate situation given that she is only 14 years old and will be in the United States of America.” But he later changed his mind and said he respected his daughter's dying wish.

João Pedro de Magalhães, a biology expert at the University of Liverpool, said that there was a “small” chance that it could work at some undetermined point in the future, although he emphasized that the process of cryonic preservation is “very damaging to cells, particularly in the brain.” He told the BBC that while it is “possible maybe to revive some of the cells” after death, it was unknown whether memories would be preserved if a person were to be revived centuries from now.

“We don’t know how technology is going to progress in a hundred years from now,” he said from a broadcasting studio in Liverpool. Speaking to a London-based BBC broadcaster, he said: “I think it’s quite remarkable we are talking from Liverpool to London and I’m looking at you and we were doing that live. If you were to tell that to someone 2[00]-300 years ago, they would say that you were mad.”