A public relations disaster is brewing in Australia where a Sydney morgue has been implicated in some questionable practices – the removal of organs from corpses without the consent of their next of kin.
An official report released in March showed that more than 250,000 individual body parts are being kept in hospitals and educational institutions all over New South Wales. Presumably, these parts are where they are for the purpose of medical research and educational purposes. But with so many out in the open, one can only wonder where they all came from. How did these organs find their way into the research lab or the freshman class, Anatomy 101?
A higher cause
Now its not uncommon at all to discover that such a situation exists – after all, those parts do serve a higher goal by being used as educational aids or test platforms for the advancement of medical science. If a similar study was done in just about any country around the world that has an established medical community, similar numbers would almost certainly be found. And, surely, the practice itself of keeping these organs is not a new one; Paracelsus and Hippocrates regularly dissected corpses in an attempt to learn how the human body functioned.
Medicine deals with healing the human body, therefore it goes to reason that experimentation on the human body is needed to improve the quality of medicine. Sometimes, experimentation on live subjects may not be possible (e.g. cutting brain up into thin slices to see its structure) so the brain of a person who has passed away is needed. After all, that person, does not need it anymore; why not let humanity benefit from the information that can be garnered from it. After all, if you bury it, all that’s going to happen is that it’ll eventually turn to dust, thereby benefiting no one.
But what about the family?
The uproar in New South Wales, which has led to the suspension of the head of Sydney’s main morgue and the sudden gruesome confessions by morgue officials of how corpses were regularly stripped of their part, is caused, in part by the fact that consent wasn’t received from the corpse’s next of kin before the organs were removed. Surely this constitutes a breach of faith? Maybe, but think for a minute of it’s implications.
If left to the family to decide, a few things will almost surely happen. Firstly, many would instinctively recoil against the idea of removing the organs of a loved one, even if it is for medical research. The thought of the a loved one’s eyeballs floating in a jar is, understandably, too much for most to bear.
Secondly, it may be safe to assume that many would allow the removal of a loved one’s organs if they had time to think about how it will benefit medical research, but it is the nature of human corpses that makes the time available for such difficult decisions very short. A brain or spinal column left in the morgue for any more than a few days, untreated and unpreserved outside of the body, would be useless for any meaningful research. Thus giving the grieving widow or mother time to think about a decision will only serve to make the point moot.
Given these two ideas, it becomes apparent that a very large majority of living family members will not give their consent if asked. If permission were to be asked for each donation to take place, the bank of available human tissue and organs for research purposes will surely shrink and is this in our best interests?
The mother and the child
Without her permission, Debra Ford’s baby girl had her heart and lungs removed upon her death due to a congenital heart problem in 1997. The organs had been taken because it would have given doctors a tremendous opportunity to perform research on a heart that had collapsed because of the disorder. The ultimate aim: so that doctors would be able to find ways to treat the problem in other young children who suffer from the same problem. Yet, Debra found the doctors’ action "disgusting" – the doctors are caught between a rock and a hard place. They’re damned if they do, and they’re damned if they don’t because many more young babies may die because adequate research on congenital heart disease could not be carried out.
Medicine has become what it is today – a life-preserving science – because of medical research, some of it difficult to accept due to its methods but no less effective in its ability to produce results that save lives. Let’s try and swallow our emotions and allow the practice of using the dead to save the living continue.
Appearing in www.renungan.com 19 March 2001