An essay by an anonymous bioethicist, presented by Thomas Canfield
Illustration by Katie Nyborg
March 11, 2117. Mark that date in your calendar. That was the day the first client in a state of cryostasis was revived. There were only two people present: Dr Maxwell Bessemer, who was head of the program, and myself.
I was a bio-ethicist and had been with the facility for over a year now. Ostensibly I had been hired to be certain that all of the articles of the UN charter concerning cellular modifications and tissue regeneration were observed. But my true purpose was nowhere stated in the contract I had signed. It had not been written down and it had not been conveyed orally. It was understood intuitively and needed no further confirmation. I was there to protect the interests of our corporate parent, Biometric Innovations Consortium. I was to provide them with cover, to vouch for their compliance with the highest ethical standards, should something go wrong. And there was a very real chance that something would go wrong. An excellent chance.
What we were about to attempt had no precedent. The field and theory of cryogenics was still highly experimental. Although it had been around from the tail end of the twentieth century it remained, as it had begun, theoretical and controversial. There was no proven science that the concept could, in fact, be realized. There was speculation, there was conjecture, there was talk and discussion but there was a dearth of cold hard fact and a total absence of results. It was a science founded on hope and wishful thinking. Today, all that was about to change.
Bessemer had selected as our subject for revival client number 372: a man named Jack Randolph Schuster. He had chosen Schuster as much for his total anonymity as for any other reason. Biometric Innovations had a number of high profile clients: sports figures, movie actors, pop icons, titans of politics and industry–individuals with large bank accounts and even larger egos. These were the people naturally drawn to the possibility of an encore performance, of being able to resume their lives at some future juncture and strut the stage in triumph yet once again. Bessemer nixed all of these at the very outset. He wanted to attract as little attention as possible and dredging up some prominent name from the past would not be conducive to such an objective. But there were plenty of ordinary people in the client bank as well, names that no one would remember and no one would care about. Out of these Bessemer had selected Schuster.
Schuster was a corporate executive based in Cincinnati who had made a small fortune in aluminum alloys but had remained an unknown even while alive. He had certainly long been forgotten and had no living descendants that we were able to track down. He died in 2048. Bessemer’s logic in choosing him was based not only upon his anonymity but upon the fact that he had been relatively young and in good shape when he died. Bessemer had not wanted to select from amongst the earliest inventory, client numbers one through two hundred, specimens he worried might have gone ‘stale.’ That left us with Schuster.
I had studied the brief biographical profile we had of him, written by the subject himself as part of the application procedure. It was a fairly conventional bio, right down to the wife and two kids, but there was one fact which caught my attention. He had listed under hobbies the notation ‘bird watching,’ which I found a rather quaint and exotic pastime. It was something he would not be doing much of here in the year 2117. But then that was the risk you ran in wanting to come back. No one could guarantee what sort of world it would be should you return. That rested with forces bigger even than Biometric Innovations.
When Bessemer initiated the process that morning I said a brief prayer. It was only a few hastily mumbled words under my breath, not something I was in the habit of doing. But the occasion drew it from me. We were in uncharted waters here. None of us knew whether the process would succeed or not. It had taken a hundred and thirty years to reach the point where it was even worth taking a shot at. And then, if it should succeed, no one could say with any authority what the end result would be. That is, if we brought the client back to a biological viability that loosely fit the definition of life, what would that life resemble?
Similarly, what would the client himself resemble? Would he be fully intact, an exact recreation of the individual as he had existed at the time of his death? Or would certain elements be lost, would we retrieve three-quarters of the client or one-eighth? More frightening still, would the individual be reconstituted as a series of random impulses; stray memories and inclinations that could never be reassembled into a coherent whole? Any of these outcomes was possible. Only the event itself would tell.
I watched through a plexiglass partition as Bessemer went through a series of processes designed to revive Schuster. It was an enormously complex procedure and perhaps only Bessemer and a handful of others understood it in its entirety. I had approved the individual steps but what they added up to in sum … I could not honestly have judged whether they constituted an ethical breach or not. It was intense and nerve-wracking to watch. Not until four hours into the operation did I finally begin to relax. Nothing had happened. Nothing was going to happen. Perhaps it was for the best.
Then, in hour number five, Bessemer pushed past some threshold. The logjam was broken and all the monitors suddenly began spitting out data: data that seemed to confirm that the recumbent form resting in the capsule was, by any medically accepted definition of the term, alive.
Bessemer thrust his fist into the air. I watched as client 372’s eyelids fluttered and finally flicked open. I stared into the abyss. “Sweet mother of god,” I exclaimed and that dichotomy of reaction, that gulf that lay between Bessemer and myself, seemed to express a profound parting of the ways.
It was twenty-four hours later that I went in to conduct my first interview. It was the most critical interview of all, the one that would establish the precedent, and the tone, for all that would follow. I was extremely nervous.
“Relax,” Bessemer advised me. “There’s nothing to be worried about. You’ve interviewed all manner of subjects in all manner of circumstances. This is only one more. Clinically, our client has lost 70% of his muscle mass. He has no muscle tone and is incapable of moving without assistance. He cannot yet speak and you will be compelled to communicate by writing on a pad of paper. All we need for you to do,” Bessemer’s eyes probed my own and there was a measure of severity in his look, “is to establish a psychological profile of sorts. To determine that our client possesses some form of self-awareness sufficient to conclude that it approximates that of a normal human being.”
I understood what he was saying very plainly. Biometric Innovations wanted the green light to proceed with their experiment unhindered by outside observation. If I confirmed that the client possessed a sufficiently cohesive identity to assert its own desires and to convey its own wishes that would be enough. But who was our client really, how much of him had come through the process? Was he merely a hollow construct of flesh and bone, devoid of distinguishing traits and of memory? I braced myself, walked into the room.
Schuster was propped up on a bed of sorts, a down quilt tucked around his lower abdomen. A bank of equipment monitored his vital signs. One IV drip administered a saline solution and another a unit of enriched plasma. Bessemer, for all his brave front, was concerned about pressure sores and a whole host of ailments that might strike at any time. I was not there to judge Schuster’s physical condition of course, but I could not help but observe that he looked awful. He had no hair anywhere, was thin as a rail and sported a complexion the color and consistency of bread dough. Even his tongue seemed to be without color. But then he had just come through a terrible ordeal, some seventy years immersed in a capsule of liquid nitrogen. It was a wonder he didn’t look worse.
“Mr. Schuster?” I gave him a reassuring smile. “I’m Hob Vandergraff. I’m a bio-ethicist out of the University of Chicago. I’ve been brought in as an independent consultant to confer with you and to ascertain your present level of comfort.”
Wary–-I could see it in his eyes right off. It was an excellent indicator. It demonstrated an awareness of his surroundings and predicament and an ability to subject them to a complex series of judgments. He did not trust me–an astute and practical position, one I myself would have adopted had I been in his position.
“I’m aware that you’re unable to converse verbally at this juncture so I thought perhaps …” I held up the pad of paper. “You can write your thoughts here and I will endeavor to respond to them.” I did not know whether he could write either, of course. Or whether verb and object and article retained any meaning for him. Perhaps all had been lost in the nether realm he had inhabited. Perhaps everything, right down to the core root of his personality, had been lost. But to find out I had to be able to communicate.
I handed him the pad of paper and, with it, a pen. He wrestled with the pen clumsily as though it were a foreign object whose purpose eluded him. His fingers appeared swollen and unwieldy, the tips curiously splayed. Finally he seemed to get the hang of it.
“Ask me anything you like,” I encouraged him. I was aware of a distinct aura of tension which surrounded client 372. Nothing which I could quantify or measure or calibrate. But it was there nonetheless, sharp and intrusive and … disturbing. Anxiety seemed to pour out of him like some foul contagion, the mute protest of a cornered animal. It bothered me more than I cared to admit.
I watched Schuster closely, observing every gesture and mannerism. He began to inscribe a large, looping symbol upon the paper which, eventually, I interpreted to represent the letter W. Sweat stood out on Schuster’s forehead. He gripped the pen with such intensity that I thought it might shatter. It took several minutes for him to render the second letter-–H. Who; he wanted to know who he was. He had retained no residual memory of the person he had once been.
“You were Jack Randolph Schuster,” I informed him, relieved to be dealing in the realm of hard facts once again. “You were born and grew up in western Pennsylvania but as an adult you made your home in Cincinnati. Your mother’s name was Amanda.” I stopped.
Schuster’s eyes blazed with fury. Had he been able, he surely would have reached out and cuffed me. He manipulated the pen with painstaking exactitude, with a concentration that blotted out the whole of the universe and left only these simple lines upon paper: Y. His question should have read Why? not Who?
I was stunned. My first thought was that I had been rebuked for my presumption-–and rightly so. Schuster was capable of a complex response that ran the gamut from resentment to frustration to fury and disdain. He had contradicted me, had rejected my authority and insisted upon his own. It was the action of a fully integrated personality, of an intelligence capable and desirous of asserting its own independence. Schuster had come through as an intact, functioning human being. It was revolutionary.
My second thought was to consider the devastating implications of the question-–Why? For there was no doubt or ambiguity inherent in this. Why had he been brought back? How could we have committed such an act, so serious a transgression against the natural order? It was a question which had never really entered into our deliberations. Or at best it had been a fringe issue, easily set aside.
We acted as we had because we are a people driven to push forward, to encounter, and to overcome, obstacles. We acted for no better reason, and from no superior motive, than that we were confronted by a challenge. I perceived now how inadequate this was, how shallow. We had taken on Death without regard for the consequences or the repercussions or the sheer impossibility of knowing what the end result would be. It was an astonishing display of hubris and I found that I wished to disassociate myself from it, to minimize my culpability.
“You signed a contract,” I said. “You expressed a wish that, should the technology be developed in the future, it would be utilized to revive you. It’s all legal and binding. All the parties entered into the transaction voluntarily and of their own free will.” But this sounded hollow even to my own ears. It was the sort of self-justifying claptrap that lawyers trafficked in and that caused everyone to despise them so.
“The truth is,” I looked Schuster in the eye, “I don’t know why. I can’t tell you.” A spasm racked Schuster’s frame. His face squinched tight in agony. I looked at the monitors but they detected no signs of physiological distress. The pain, the horror Schuster expressed so plainly, lay solely in his mind.
“Is it really so bad?” I asked. “I have no way of knowing. I’m doing my best but our inability to communicate limits my scope and range.” I had been trained to be empathetic, to distinguish subtle signs that consisted of nothing but pauses or omissions. But here I had not even that to work with.
“Would you, if such an option were available, rescind your wish to be revived?” Another tremor racked Schuster. “Simply lift your finger to signify yes.” Schuster not only lifted his finger, he stabbed it at me angrily. It was an accusation, an indictment, the sting of which lodged in my heart. “Certainly I will note that in my report. I can offer it as a recommendation. But you need to appreciate that the forces arrayed against you, against us …”
And I could not go on. Schuster’s eyes were immense pools of misery. I had never witnessed such pain before, such a bottomless well of hopelessness. How could I explain that, having taken the initial step, events acquired a momentum of their own. There was an enormous institutional thrust that kicked in at once. It could only be derailed by a countervailing force of equal magnitude. Of which there was none.
It was only then that I decided to play the tape which I had secured earlier. It was a piece of audio which I had dug out of the archives. Originally I intended to use it to verify whether Schuster had returned intact. But now I thought that it might soothe him, might ease his distress. Immediately the room was filled with a cascading series of notes, a liquid melody whose sweetness caught me totally off guard. I had not heard the song before, no one living had. The source had been extinct these sixty years past and more. It was the melody of a Baltimore oriole.
I listened, entranced, forgetting for the moment where I was. The sound washed over me and I felt myself transported to a distant time and place, standing in a meadow surrounded by wildflowers. It was uncanny how vivid and compelling the image was-–and how acute my sense of lose that something so beautiful should have been taken from us. The tape ended. I started, came to myself. Tears flowed from Schuster’s eyes, ran down his cheeks unheeded. I touched my own face and found, to my surprise, that I had been crying as well. That was when Bessemer walked into the room.
The tape had rewound and started to play again. Bessemer looked up at the speakers, scowling. “What is that?” he demanded.
I turned off the switch. “It’s nothing,” I said. “A bird. I thought I would test our client and see if he recognized it.”
“Indeed.” Bessemer appeared displeased. “And did he?”
I glanced at Schuster. The emotion, the answer, was plain on his face for anyone to see. “I believe so,” I remarked quietly. I took a deep breath, came to a decision I had not known I would make until that very minute.
“We need to terminate this,” I said.
Bessemer stared at me, astounded. “Terminate? Are you out of your mind? We’ve only just started. We’ve barely touched the surface here. Not even that. How could you possibly suggest that we terminate?”
“We have to!” I said, convinced that it was imperative. “Can’t you see? He’s suffering. He’s in agony. To allow this to continue … it would be criminal.”
Bessemer drew back, regarded me with cool detachment. “You can’t possibly know what he’s feeling. You’re simply overwhelmed with the strangeness of it, as am I. It will take months of research and observation, it could take years, before we acquire a sense of who our client is and of what he wants. It would be folly to terminate now. It would be criminal.”
I clenched my hands, tried to tamp down my rising indignation. “His pain is evident enough, even if you refuse to acknowledge it. We have an obligation, both of us, to adhere to a certain minimum standard. In my judgment we have no other option than to terminate.”
“Duly noted,” Bessemer said dryly. “I’ll even include a footnote in the official record that you expressed reservations. Now, let’s move on.”
I stood up, walked behind my client. That was how I thought of him now-–my client. Not a client of Biometric Innovations, not number 372, but my client. I had assumed responsibility for him and for his fate.
“You’re not listening. We’re done here. I’m making the call. I’ll bear the consequences.”
“You will that, trust me,” Bessemer said with icy disdain. “I’m citing you for insubordination. I’m going to have Security escort you out. It’s not your call to make. The decision is mine and mine alone. This project will proceed. You’re relieved effective this minute. And I suggest that you go quietly. Biometric Innovations has a very long reach, as even you are no doubt aware. Any official statement you make, that will be at the discretion of the company.” He left the room to summon Security.
I looked at Schuster sitting there-–or perhaps sitting was too active and forceful an expression. I looked at him existing there. He was throwing out every signal of distress that a person in his position possibly could. Wave upon wave of anxiety and tension-–it filled the room. I was all that stood between him and the corporate colossus known as Biometric Innovations. They needed for Schuster to be a success. It was essential to their strategic vision and to the company’s bottom line. Thus it was a given that Schuster would be a success-–and that Biometric Innovations would not stick at whatever it took to make him one.
I was not given to heroism. That had gone out of fashion a long time ago. The current dynamic was to be practical and hard-headed and, where need be, ruthless. This was as true of a bio-ethicist as of anyone else. If I were to stand in the way of Biometric Innovations, if I were to sabotage their project, they would run over me with a steamroller. Were I to intervene now it would be an act of self-immolation. And, as I said, I’m not cast in the heroic mold.
I walked over to the table, grabbed the writing pad. I scribbled the phrase End? then slid it over to where Schuster could read it.
He picked up the pen and began to scrawl laboriously E-N-D. I thought for an instant that he was merely echoing my question back at me, which would have let me off the hook and negated the imperative to act. Schuster struggled with the pen and the punctuation which I had assumed was going to be a question mark read: End!
I began to kick off switches on the control panel to terminate the process. Schuster gave vent to a long drawn out sigh. I felt the tension bleed slowly out of the room. Something like a smile flitted across Schuster’s face. Then he slumped forward bonelessly. I could not say with any authority that he was dead, only that he had returned to whatever state it was that he had inhabited before.
I stared blankly off into space. All the anxiety and angst which had resided in the room before had now accumulated in my own heart. I stood there waiting for the hammer blow which must now, inevitably, descend upon myself.
Dr. Bessemer received his undergraduate degree from Cal Polytechnic and pursued his doctoral studies at UC Berkley and Stanford University. He has worked for both government and private industry. In his spare time, he plays the violin and is a dues paying member of PETA.
Canfield’s phobias run to politicians, lawyers and oil company executives. He likes dogs and beer.
Katie Nyborg’s art, plus information regarding hiring her, can be found at http://katiedoesartthings.tumblr.com/