Modern Male Sati

To most feminists, the practice of sati, where a wife is burned alive on her husband’s funeral pyre, is iconic of patriarchy’s disrespect of women. Even though the practice was always rare (<0.1%), and mostly happened in higher social castes, the fact that a society would even consider it was called a terrible indictment.

Sati is now illegal. So have we have cast off the yoke of patriarchy, just papered it over a bit, or what? Here’s an interesting clue: a large fraction (>10%) of wives today are inclined to divorce husbands who try to live longer than they via the unusual med tech of cryonics, i.e., freezing in the hope of future revival. Today at NYT:

“Cryonics has been known to frequently produce intense hostility from spouses who are not cryonicists.” The opposition of romantic partners … is something that “everyone” involved in cryonics knows about … To someone who believes that low-temperature preservation offers a legitimate chance at extending life, obstructionism can seem as willfully cruel as withholding medical treatment. Even if you don’t want to join your husband in storage, ask believers, what is to be lost by respecting a man’s wishes with regard to the treatment of his own remains? …

Cryonicists have created support networks with which to tackle marital strife. … (The ratio of men to women among living cyronicists is roughly three to one.) “She thinks the whole idea is sick, twisted and generally spooky,” wrote one man … The air of hurt confusion stems, in part, from the intuition among believers that cryonics is a harmless attempt at preserving data, little different from stowing a box of photos. … “If you have a hard drive on a computer with a lot of information that is important to you, you save it,” says J.S., a 39-year-old cryonicist and software engineer who lives in Oregon and who will not allow his full name to be used out of fear that his wife would divorce him. … A small amount of time spent trying to avoid certain death would seem to be well within the capacity of a healthy marriage to absorb. The checkered marital history of cryonics suggests instead that a violation beyond nonconformity is at stake, that something intrinsic to the loner’s quest for a second life agitates against harmony in the first. …

James Hughes, the executive director of … a nonprofit organization enamored of life extension … has chosen not to participate in what he considers a worthy experiment. “Although it’s a rather marginal bet for a potentially huge payoff,” he says, “I value my relationship with my wife.” … “If you don’t tell your wife you’re involved with cryonics, you don’t really love her,” says S.B., … who reports that his marriage is suffering and that two of his previous relationships failed because of cryonics.

The article features my wife Peggy and I:

Peggy Jackson, an affable and rosy-cheeked hospice worker … doesn’t like the militant cast of “lost her battle with,” as in, “She lost her battle with cancer.” … She doesn’t like these phrases, but she tolerates them. The one death-related phrase she will not abide, will not let into her house under any circumstance, is “cryonic preservation.” … That this will be her husband’s chosen form of bodily disposition creates, as you might imagine, certain complications in the Jackson household. “You have to understand,” says Peggy, who at 54 is given to exasperation about her husband’s more exotic ideas. “I am a hospice social worker. I work with people who are dying all the time. I see people dying All. The. Time. And what’s so good about me that I’m going to live forever?”…

Peggy’s initial response to this ambition, rooted less in scientific skepticism than in her personal judgments about the quest for immortality, has changed little in the past 20-odd years. Robin, a deep thinker most at home in thought experiments, says he believes that there is some small chance his brain will be resurrected, that its time in cryopreservation will be merely a brief pause in the course of his life. Peggy finds the quest an act of cosmic selfishness. …

The United States is not necessarily an easy place to take up the banner of letting go; we’re likely to call it “giving up,” and there is of course no purer expression of this attitude than the pursuit of cryonics. … When he dies … it will fall to someone else to call Alcor and explain Robin’s wishes to the hospital staff. “My husband has said, on numerous occasions, ‘Choose life at any cost,’ ” Peggy says. “But I’ve seen people in pain. It’s not worth it.” …

Robin’s expertise extends to the economics of health care, a domain in which enormous amounts of money are spent on experimental procedures with only a small chance of extending life. Like many cryonicists, he says he thinks of bodily preservation as experimental end-of-life medical care, and it is within a medical context that he typically introduces the subject of cryonics to his health economics class at George Mason. … In other words, while his wife says that medical technology has an unfortunate stranglehold on the way we die, Robin longs to claim the mantle of medical science for his attempt to avoid death altogether. But here he doesn’t expect to succeed, and as with most societal attitudes that contradict his intuitions, he’s got a theory as to why.

It seems a bit unfair to cast me, the author of Cut Medicine In Half, as “never give up” on med. I fully agree med has “an unfortunate stranglehold on the way we die”, think there is way too much end of life med, that docs wait way too long before giving up, and am a huge fan of hospices and Peggy’s contribution to them.  I’m pro cryonics not because I’m pro all-med-no-matter-what, but because its cost benefit seems favorable – a >5% chance of decades more life for a few tens of thousands of dollars.  And this isn’t at all about immortality, the odds of which are far lower, but mainly about more decades of healthy interesting life.

Still, I’m delighted this article appeared, and thank its author Kerry Howley for making it happen.

Added: Bryan weighs in. Tyler too.

Added 6p:  It seems clear to me that opposition is driven by the possibility that it might actually work.  If people were sure it wouldn’t work there’d be no point in talking about selfishness, immortality, etc.  If the main issue were a waste of money we’d see an entirely different reaction.

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