The Thomas Donaldson Case

Case background
Appellate Brief
Appellate Court Decision

Abstract from
Journal of Contemporary Health Law and Policy
1993 Spring; 9:589-603.

Donaldson v. Van de Kamp:
Cryonics, Assisted Suicide, and the
Challenges of Medical Science

Pommer, RW 3rd.

In recent years, advances in medical science have left the legal community with a wide array of social, ethical, and legal problems previously unimaginable. Historically, legislative and judicial responses to these advances lagged behind the rapid pace of such developments. The gap between the scientist’s question, “Can we do it?,” and the lawyer’s question, “Should/may we do it?” is most evident in the field of cryonics, with its technique of cryonic, or cryogenic, suspension. In cryonic suspension, a legally dead but biologically viable person is preserved at an extremely low temperature until advances in medical science make it possible to revive the person and implement an effective cure. The terminally ill patient who wishes to benefit from such treatment is faced with the dilemma that present life must be ceased with hope of future recovery. As a result, the process challenges our traditional notions of death and the prospects of immortality while raising a host of concomitant legal dilemmas. Some facets of this dilemma are exemplified by Donaldson v. Van de Kamp. In Donaldson, Thomas A. Donaldson sought the declaration of a constitutional right to premortem cryonic suspension of his body and the assistance of others in achieving that state. Donaldson, a forty-six-year-old mathematician and computer software scientist, suffers from a malignant brain tumor that was diagnosed by his physicians in 1988. This tumor is inoperable and continues to grow and invade his brain tissue. Donaldson’s condition will gradually deteriorate into a persistent vegetative state and will ultimately result in death. Physicians predict his probable death by August 1993. Donaldson petitioned the California courts, seeking a declaration that he had a constitutional right to achieve cryonic suspension before his natural death. His doctors believe that if Donaldson waits until his natural death to be suspended, future reanimation will be futile because the tumor will have destroyed his brain. In addition, Donaldson’s doctors sought an injunction against criminal prosecution for their participation in the suspension, because Donaldson, once suspended, would be considered “dead” under California law. Donaldson and his doctors built their novel argument upon the recent right-to-die cases in which the courts recognized a patient’s right to have life-sustaining medical treatment withdrawn. Donaldson argued that his right to privacy and self-determination is paramount to any state interest in maintaining life. Thus, according to Donaldson, balancing the state’s reasons to end–or “interrupt,” as cryonics enthusiasts would have it–his own life was not necessary. The trial court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a cause of action, and Donaldson appealed to the California Court of Appeals. Because the cryonic process would necessarily involve physician-assisted death, or the aiding, advising, or encouraging of another to commit suicide, the appellate court affirmed the ruling of the trial court, holding that Donaldson did not have a constitutional right to assisted death. Additionally, in light of Donaldson’s First Amendment challenge to the statute, the court upheld the criminal statute prohibiting the aiding, advising, or encouraging of another to commit suicide. This Note briefly discusses the process of cryonic suspension and explores the holding of Donaldson in light of the underlying rationale of the California right-to-die cases. Considering the contradictory state and individual interests balanced in the right-to-die cases, this Note concludes that, under a similar balancing test, premortem cryonic suspension could be permitted under certain circumstances; however, the right to premortem cryonic suspension may be more effectively recognized through legislation.