Our squeamish attitudes impede progress
As far as we know, Man is the only creature capable of contemplating his future non-existence, which is to say his death. That is why funeral rites, and the disposal of human remains, have always been very important to him. We all view mass burials with peculiar horror, not only because they imply the death of many people at more or less the same time, but also because they deny the special status of human bodies. By so doing, they cast doubt on the value of human life itself.
In past times, the desecration of one’s body after death was regarded as the worst of all possible fates. It is said that in the 18th century murderers feared their subsequent anatomisation -their dissection -in Surgeons’ Hall more than they feared their actual execution by hanging. I rather doubt this, though Hogarth’s print of the Last Stage of Cruelty, in which an habitual criminal undergoes dissection in Surgeons’ Hall as the final indignity, suggests that it might have been true.
The revelation that British Nuclear Fuels performed tests on body parts of some of their employees who died while working at Sellafield Nuclear Power Station (and one or two other power stations) has awakened fears of Frankenstein activity on the part of scientists, who were supposedly more interested in the pursuit of knowledge than in due respect to the dead.
The emergency statement made by Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, in the House of Commons yesterday gives no ground for alarm of any kind. The body parts were tested for radionuclides, mainly at the request of coroners, and then destroyed. The tests themselves seemed eminently sensible in the circumstances. But that Mr Darling felt obliged to make the statement at all indicates public sensitivity on the matter.
It would have made perfect sense for the tissues in question to have been kept for investigation another day, though to have done so would no doubt have stirred up a hornets’ nest of simulated public outrage. It would have been a good idea because it is always possible that new scientific techniques will reveal scientifically important information from old material: for example, 40-year-old frozen blood serums have been very important in tracing the origins of the Aids virus, and it is absurd to think that anyone was harmed by their storage even if no donor gave consent to it.
Our sensitivity about body parts, stirred up by the events at Alder Hey hospital in Liverpool, has already had harmful consequences. Hospital post mortems are now rarely performed: doctors are wary of asking relatives for permission to perform a post mortem even when they think it necessary to elucidate the cause of death. A request for a post mortem is now often received by relatives as if it were a manifestation of some nefarious and illicit purpose.
Traditionally, the post mortem, the final appeal in the court of diagnosis, was used to sharpen a physician’s or a surgeon’s diagnostic skills. The whole development of Western medicine would have been retarded, perhaps even prevented, had our Victorian forebears been as sensitive on the issue of body parts as we claim to be now. They would have laughed at the very concept of “respectful” disposal of slices of tissue a tenth the thickness of a hair. They were far more religious than we, but much less squeamish.
Legitimate research using pathology specimens is very much more difficult now that even tiny fractions of human bodies are treated as if they were the inviolable relics of saints. Bureaucratic procedures have to be gone through (they make canonisation seem like a mere formality) in order to obtain permission to use small fragments of tissue for research. Even anonymous specimens in pathological museums can no longer be used for research, on the ground that no one ever gave consent for them to be so used.
It is a rule of modern life in Britain that every crisis is also an opportunity - a bureaucratic opportunity, that is, or an opportunity for government to spend ever more of the taxpayers’ money on the obstruction of useful activity. The Human Tissue Authority, set up after the Alder Hey affair, now employs 40-45 people, with a board of 15 part-timers. Many hospital doctors remember, half-amused and half-despairing, the heady days after Alder Hey, when men in suits arrived in hospitals and searched every cupboard, and every drawer of every desk, looking for illicit parts of dead babies. An inquiry is to be held into the Sellafield affair, a further contribution to pointless public expenditure.
One of the effects of public inquiries is not to quieten public concern, but to inflame it further. After all, there is no smoke without fire. What is really a very minor matter is blown out of all proportion, and people become hypersensitive about things to which they had previously not given a moment’s thought. So it is with the use by pathologists of human tissue. Before Alder Hey and the inquiry, no one grieved over microtomic slices of human liver or kidney.
Bismarck, the great German Chancellor, once wisely remarked that one should inquire neither how sausages nor politics are made. Most people seem to think that transparency is always desirable (except, that is, in those things that they themselves want to conceal from public view). They would like every human activity to be codified, preferably by means of filling in long forms. They think that, if all activity were sufficiently regulated, all abuses would cease. This is not so: not only would abuses continue, but also real work would decline.
Let us, then, be less sensitive and more robust about body parts. For when primitive irrationalism allies itself to excessive legalism, we turn ourselves into wards of the state.