Terminally ill teen won historic court ruling to preserve her body after death

By John Tingle

The British media have been reporting and discussing widely the case of JS v M and F (Cryonic case), 10th November 2016 in the High Court of Justice, Family Division, [2016] EWHC 2859 (Fam). The case is the first in the UK and probably the world to deal with the issue of cryonics and a 14-year-old girls dying wish for her body to be preserved after her death with the hope that at some time in the future she will be brought back to life after a cure for her illness is found.

Truth is stranger than fiction and this case raises some fundamental legal and ethical issues which will occupy future courts and the legislature for some time to come. I could not imagine a more novel and difficult medical law case.

The facts

JS had a rare form of cancer and her active treatment came to an end in August when she started to receive palliative care. Over recent months she has used the internet to investigate cryonics: the freezing of a dead body in the hope that there may be a cure for the illness that she had and will be brought back to life at some future time. Mr Justice Peter Jackson heard the case and stated in his judgement that the scientific theory underlying cryonics is speculative and controversial and that there is considerable debate about its ethical implications. Since the first cryonic preservation in the 1960s,the process has been performed on very few individuals, numbering in the low hundreds. There are two commercial organisations in the United States and one in Russia for this form of preservation.She is one of only 10 Britons and the only British child to have been frozen by Cryonics UK , a non-profit organization. Her body was transported to the USA and is being stored in a vat of liquid nitrogen by the Cyronics Institute in Michigan.

JS had the legal capacity to decide what she wanted and was described as a bright, intelligent young person who is able to articulate strongly held views on her current situation. The court was told that she has pursued her investigations with determination, even though a number of people have tried to dissuade her, and that she has not been coerced or steered by her family or anyone else.

Her parents were divorced and whilst her mother supported her decision her father’s position was different. The court had to resolve the parental dispute and vested authority in the mother to decide her daughters funeral arrangements.Her father was not allowed to view her body when she died as JS did not want him there.

Mr Justice Peter Jackson stated the ambit of the issues to be discussed:

“… I cannot emphasise enough what this case is not about. It is not about whether cryonic preservation has any scientific basis or whether it is right or wrong. The court is not approving or encouraging cryonics, still less ordering that JS’s body should be cryonically preserved. Nor is this case about whether JS’s wishes are sensible or not. We are all entitled to our feelings and beliefs about our own life and death, and none of us has the right to tell anyone else – least of all a young person in JS’s position – what they must think.”

“All this case is about is providing a means by which the uncertainty about what can happen during JS’s lifetime and after her death can be resolved so far as possible. JS cannot expect automatic acceptance of her wishes, but she is entitled to know whether or not they can be acted upon by those who will be responsible for her estate after her death.”

The judgement is a  very sensitive one recognising the autonomy of JS and at the same time trying to balance  the interests of all the other parties. The paramount consideration was JS. She died peacefully in the knowledge that her body would be preserved in the way she wanted and with the hope of life again.