Dead body politics

spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London).

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

As Alan Milburn prepares to announce laws to punish doctors and scientists who keep body parts without consent, some might be forgiven for thinking that the Health Secretary appears more concerned with the welfare and rights of the dead than with the health and treatment of the living.

The ghoulish, Government-sponsored obsession with ‘the body-parts scandal’ seems detrimental to the interests of all concerned: of relatives obliged to relive their grief, of hospitals forced to divert resources from treating patients to finding dead tissue and of scientists deprived of the raw materials for medical research. A Government inquiry due to report today will reveal that, between 1970 and 1999, doctors supplied researchers with the brains of mentally ill or disabled people without the families’ consent, and that 24,000 are still stored in hospitals and universities. The inquiry, led by the Inspector of Anatomy, Jeremy Metters, was set up by Mr Milburn after the 2001 Alder Hey inquiry revealed that the organs of 3,500 children at the Liverpool hospital were removed without parental consent.

In the wake of Alder Hey, teams of inspectors scoured hospitals for suspect specimens in jars as if looking for evidence of a massacre. The dark tone of discussion about the Metters inquiry has already been set by headlines such as ‘Doctors stole brains for research’. Research using children’s hearts has reaped great benefits for child health, and brain research has contributed to the advance of neuro-science. Yet these cold facts cannot compete with emotive protests of relatives about the lack of consent.

Consent is an important principle of medical procedures. But these inquiries have comprehensively redefined its meaning. In the past medical staff would commonly ask for relatives’ general agreement to perform a post-mortem; what happened to specific body organs remained a grey area, but it was generally accepted that medical research was a Good Thing. Now, many are more suspicious of medical science, and the rule is that relatives must give fully informed consent to the use of organs and tissue in research. The new meaning of consent has then been projected backwards, to attach retrospective guilt to those who were only following the standard practices of their time.

If people now demand greater openness, the medical authorities will have to construct some new agreement on consent. But how many details do relatives want – a tick-box list of organs to check off for removal, or perhaps a full-length video of the post-mortem? And supposing the hospitals can find a way (and the resources) to track the relatives of each preserved body part, what is to be done with them? Funeral rites for 30-year-old brain tissue?

None of this seems likely to be of much emotional or spiritual benefit to the relatives concerned, even if some will take compensation money from the NHS. And the potential damage done to the care of the living is considerable. For Dr Michael Fitzpatrick, an outspoken critic of the post-Alder Hey process, ‘it is now easier to receive the organs of some long-deceased relative than it is to get a viable organ for transplantation. And it may soon be easier to get compensation for the removal of an organ from a corpse than it is to get admitted to hospital for an operation on a breathing body.’

It seems to be taken as read nowadays that people are right to be angry at the use of their relatives’ organs in medical research. Yet if we did not suffer such mawkish preoccupations, it might seem more natural to be pleased that their remains were put to good use. The medical authorities should stop apologising for taking a cold, clinical attitude to the cadaver, and come out fighting for medical science. People need to get real. If they want complete ‘transparency’ in the autopsy laboratory, they must be prepared to accept that it is not a pretty sight. Otherwise, sign the form and let pathologists work behind closed doors. Just because it is private, it is not necessarily a cover-up.

One Tory MP campaigning on behalf of a woman whose husband’s brain was removed without her knowledge says: ‘We know the doctors thought they were protecting relatives, but what my constituent has said is that the pain of ignorance is worse than the pain of knowing.’ A belief in ‘the pain of ignorance’ now seems to have replaced the notion that what you don’t know can’t harm you. How many knew or worried about their dead relatives’ organs until they were stirred up by showboating politicians, chancing lawyers, and medical crusaders?

Whatever the deficiencies of the old system, the new proposals appear worse. The longer this dangerous and morbid obsession goes on, the more it seems as if somebody has stolen the rational part of Britain’s collective brain.

This article is republished from The Times (London)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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