Recently, I was at Peet's Coffee writing an article on my laptop. A tired father walked into the shop with his adult son, a portly-looking 20-year-old weighing over 200 pounds. The son had Down syndrome, and his mental state was so confused that the father had to walk closely behind him, holding both of his shoulders to guide him. The son moaned as he walked, jerking forward in sharp, uncoordinated movements. Saliva bubbled out of his mouth.
I'm the parent of two young children (a 3-year-old and an 11-week-old infant), and my sympathy immediately went out to this father and his grueling burden in life. For many parents—especially an atheist one like myself—having an extreme special needs child is a daunting worry. Every five minutes in America, a child is born mentally retarded. That's over 100,000 kids a year. Approximately three percent of the American population has some form of severe cognitive dysfunction.
I watched the father place his order with the Peet's barista, receive his coffee, and lead his son to the condiment bar right next to me. The father released his son for a moment while he put creamer into his coffee. Within two seconds, the son arbitrarily lunged for my tea, spilling it all over my computer. He then proceeded to the next table and did the same with their drinks, yelling and grunting riotously.
Many people, including myself, jumped up and helped the father regain control of his son. It took only one look at the father's moist eyes to see how difficult this man's life was—filled with endless public apologies for his son's unpredictable behavior.
The question society must ask itself in the 21st Century—the age of transhumanist science and technology: genetic engineering, cyborgism, artificial intelligence, robotics, and radical life extension research—is what is the best way to handle such extreme special needs people? There are about seven million people in America with severe learning and cognitive disabilities—the most common are Down syndrome, Velocariofacial syndrome, and Fetal Alcohol syndrome—of which about 250,000 are institutionalized. Many of them are in poor health and will die prematurely due to medical issues relating to their disabilities. For both parents and society, the obligation is both massive and challenging. It costs many billions of dollars to keep extreme special needs people alive and not hurting themselves or others.
The field of cryonics—where human bodies are frozen using ultra-cold temperatures—has come a long way since the first person was preserved in 1967. Various organizations and companies around the world have since frozen ("suspended" in cryo-talk) a few hundred people. Eventually, science will figure out a way to bring them back to life—to revive them. Already, some people have survived death in freezing water for over an hour and have been brought back to life. Additionally, new techniques using a saline-cooling procedure can help restart the lives of people who have been recently declared clinically dead. Each year science advances, and the chances for reanimation of cryonic patients improve.
Given the feverish pace of scientific growth and innovation in the modern world, would it not be better to cryogenically freeze severely mentally retarded people with the hope of bringing them back to an age where science can cure them of their imperfection? More so, is it moral in the 21st Century to allow them to exist and die as they are, when likely in a matter of decades science will have what it needs to genetically alter them and make them cognitively normal? Don't we owe them the chance to be like us?
As a transhumanist philosopher, I advocate going further than just preserving special needs people after they naturally die. I believe parents should have the legal right to painlessly put their extreme special needs children into a cryogenic state while they are biologically healthy and have years left on their lives. Some extreme special needs people are clearly unhappy, living in a nightmarish rollercoaster mental state—one that is also excruciatingly painful and crushing for their families. The all-important question to ask is: If it was you in their position—either as the parent or the special needs person—what would you want? The answers, at least for the nonreligious, are quite obvious.
So why then is this act illegal? Why is society afraid of evolving its perspective on this? Is it religion? Cultural stigma? Or are we simply lazy and prefer turning a blind eye to the controversial matter?
Many may say cryogenically preserving someone while they're still biologically healthy is murder (since it would technically involve stopping their life to successfully complete the process), but what do you call a person persistent on enslaving someone in decades-long confusion, insanity, and possible suffering when a more reasonable option exists? More importantly, like many other transhumanists and life extensionists, I no longer believe in death when it involves cryonics. Cryonics is more similar to sleeping or hibernation: a machine with the power button temporarily switched to "off." This is the 21st Century; dying is going the way of the dinosaurs. If you don't believe it, you're not reading scientific and medical journals.
Human civilization is at the cusp of achieving indefinite life extension for our species. Many leading bio-gerontologists say it's only a matter of decades before we can stop or reverse aging in people. Experiments are already succeeding with this in mice. Furthermore, hundreds of millions of dollars are being poured into genetic engineering research. Additionally, replacing old body parts with new artificial body parts will become commonplace in five to ten years. Perhaps most immediately promising, the use of stem cells to rehabilitate disease and malfunction in the brain is already being used with some success in research laboratories and hospitals. Clearly, if we can just get extreme special needs people to live long enough—or we can cryopreserve them if parents prefer—we will have a chance in the future to make them cognitively normal.
Currently, the situation today with extreme special needs people is anything but normal. While some are institutionalized and cared for by the state, many others are not. Some families make the choice to care for their special needs members. This is, of course, incredibly difficult to do and often leaves everyone miserable. Besides enormous time and financial loss, there are immeasurable emotional tolls. Marriages sometimes break up over attempting to provide the care. Healthy and intelligent siblings are regularly given the cold shoulder due to the constant demands of special needs siblings. Attempting even the most basic public outings with a special needs person (such as getting coffee at Peet's) can become a dangerous, complicated ordeal. The list of negative repercussions for anyone trying to provide care for a mentally retarded person goes on and on.
One of the main reasons I advocate cryonics as a possible consideration for severe special needs people—whether they're in the middle of their life or the end of it—is for the parent's sakes. Wouldn't parents rather live happy, productive, and liberated lives rather than spending their time changing diapers and spoon feeding an unruly adult with 20 more years to live? And by the way, that extra 20 years is actually going to be an extra 50 years in a decade's time given how fast life extension science is advancing.
Another point to consider are the financial aspects of cryonics for severe cases of special needs people. Cryogenically preserving someone costs approximately $150,000, and then approximately $1000 annually in maintenance and storage fees. Caring for a special needs person runs at least $1,000,000 over their lifetime according to a US Government CDC report in 2003, and that figure is likely much higher in severe cases, especially considering the increasingly length of lifespans due to modern medicine. (Of course, one also needs to add in 11 years of inflation from when that 2003 CDC report was published too.) In short, it's probably dozens of times cheaper to go the cryonics route.
To honor society's commitment to special needs people that are cryogenically preserved, we could put all the resources we were going to spend on their lifetime care into cryonic rejuvenation science and technology, as well as genetic engineering which in the future will likely be able to reverse mental retardation. That amount of redirected money would equal many billions of dollars. In return, such newly funded science would also help future-born people with special needs, as well as the human population as a whole. Crossover science would certainly occur and spur new technologies, medicines, jobs, and ideas.
The future is coming far more quickly than most people realize. Bionic arms now connect to human nervous systems. Computer chips are already being put in people's heads for medical reasons. Video games can be played using just brainwaves. Genetically engineering humans will become a reality in just a few years. Artificial general intelligence, the holy grail of technology that may solve many of humanity's problems, will arrive within a decade or two. With such incredible technology and science at our species' disposal, an entire new set of rights and wrongs, as well as moral ambiguities, will challenge us all. As I mentioned before, the most pertinent question one can ask when facing such radical transhumanist technology is this: If it were me or if it was my child that could benefit from such advances and ideas, would I endorse it? In the case of the young man in Peet's afflicted with severe Down syndrome, who likely has decades left of his life, the controversial proposition of cryonic suspension should be considered. Anything else for him or the hundreds of thousands of others like him represents missed opportunity, possible injustice, and maybe even profound inhumanity. As a society living in the 21st Century, we can do better for the special needs people that deserve a chance at becoming normal.
Zoltan Istvan is a futurist, philosopher, journalist, and leading transhumanist. You can find him on Twitter, Google+, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Zoltan is also the author of the award-winning, #1 Philosophical bestseller novel The Transhumanist Wager. Available in ebook or paperback, the controversial novel is a revolutionary reading experience. You can check it out here.