Displaying bodies after death

 

Sir, – One of the first principles we teach in medical ethics is to not confuse what is legal with what is ethical, as the two fields often diverge: for example, to have a sexual relationship with a patient is not illegal, but is deeply unethical.

This central dichotomy holds true for the forthcoming exhibition of human bodies in the Ambassador (Home News, January 31st).

Few should be comforted by the statement of Prof Hong Jin Sui of Dalian University that the bodies have been “legally donated” under Chinese law. In the first instance, Prof Sui may still have profound conflict of interests, given that he is currently listed as general manager of Dalian Hoffen Bio-Technique Co Ltd on its website, a Chinese company which processes bodies commercially by the technique used in this exhibition.

More worryingly, Chinese law does not mandate the consent of the person or next-of-kin to allow unclaimed bodies to be “given” by city morgues for this commercial process. There are widespread concerns that families may not be aware of the loss of a loved one, that prisoners may be used, and that in any event the likelihood of true consent is remote in the extreme. In addition, the spectre of payment and trade in bodies has been raised, and the sum effect is to hugely degrade the respect due to the human body after death and undermine the principle of consent which is central to the practice of medicine.

We in Ireland had a vivid illustration of the trauma caused by failure to attend appropriately to consent in the unhappy saga of retained organs. In addition, the selection of Dublin as European City of Science in 2012 reminds us that a major pillar of our industrial strategy is the life sciences: attention to developing high standards of ethical practice among students of all ages, as well as researchers, must be a priority.

This exhibition runs counter to virtually every principle of ethical practice in science: attendance should be strongly discouraged by the Department of Education and Science among the schools and educational establishments which it funds or under its aegis. Sharing the wonder of the science of the human body could be alternatively and equally effectively achieved through the use of replicas or the imaginative artistic ventures of the Science Gallery. – Yours, etc,

Prof DESMOND O’NEILL MD FRCPI,

Centre for Ageing,

Neuroscience and the Humanities,

Trinity College Dublin,

Dublin 2.