January 5, 2017

Cryogenic suspension poses questions for insurers

Issues such as medical malpractice and cargo must be considered

The recent court case involving a 14-year-old British girl’s desire to have her body placed in cryogenic suspension after death has raised many questions for the insurance industry, but the issue of freezing body parts is not entirely new.

The freezing of both human sperm and eggs, and sometimes blood, is relatively commonplace and regularly leads to legal issues. Full cryogenic suspension is, in many respects, the ultimate extension of this type of practice.

The freezing of human sperm and eggs is closely regulated in the UK by the Human Tissue Authority and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. This raises the question of whether cryogenics should be regulated. The challenge is that cryogenics is international in nature with British subjects being transported for storage in the US.

Cryogenics is a new issue for the UK insurance industry and is raising serious questions, particularly in areas such as medical malpractice and cargo. The bodies are frozen by volunteers, who are unlikely to be insured. Transportation can be tricky and the bodies must enter the US, which could create an issue for public health and the customs authorities. The law will vary in the US from state to state.

With regard to the long-term storage, there are questions about who owns the body and what happens if the storage and preservation systems fail. There have been reported incidents in which cryogenic storage facilities have failed and the bodies thawed.

According to The Telegraph, around 20 bodies thawed out and had to be buried after a pioneer company went bust.

The cost of cryogenic preservation varies from facility to facility. One firm quoted £29,000 ($35, 625) for whole body storage or £15,000 for just the head. Leading US facility Alcor charges £162,000 for the full body and £65,000 for head-only preservation and also offers the option of taking out life insurance that will pay out to the company.

As technology advances, we are going to find more ways of preserving parts of the human body. It therefore makes sense for the insurance industry to gain a deeper understanding of the issues this type of preservation entails. This is a practice that is not going away.

Claire Petts is head of healthcare at Clyde & Co