Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Is This the Path We Want to Travel?

This business has been in the news the past few days (at least, that's how long I've been aware of it). The essence of the story is that a New Jersey company, Biomedical Tissue Services, has been selling human body parts and tissues for clinical transplant and research uses, but obtaining these parts and tissues ... well, uh ... irregularly. It seems that some of the deceased didn't consent to such arrangements while they were still living, and their families maybe didn't know either, and possibly some of them were infected in ways (HIV, hepatitis, etc.) that might not be good news to transplant recipients. The linked news story describes this in fairly colorful terms:
A macabre scandal in which corpses were plundered for body parts could be even bigger than previously disclosed, with one company alone saying it has distributed thousands of pieces of human tissue that authorities fear could be tainted with disease.

Leaving aside the obvious undesirability of transplanting infected tissues into living persons, a few other things occur to me. One is that we Americans have, I think, an odd attitude toward dead human bodies. Remember the big scandal, a few years back, about the Tri-State Crematory? Bodies were being shipped there for cremation, but the proprietor's oven wasn't working, or he just didn't feel like it ... I don't remember exactly what the deal was, but those bodies didn't get burned. Some just rotted where they were strewn; others were tossed into a pond. It was big news for weeks. And obviously that isn't good practice; the proprietor accepted money to do something, and then didn't do it; and there's substantial opportunity for the propagation of infectious disease, or -- at the very least -- a truly horrible stench. But everyone seemed to carry on as if the guy were worse than a murderer.

So, has a dead person been defrauded or stolen from, if someone steals some parts from his or her body and sells them? Without "donor consent," that is? That seems to me to be a difficult argument to make. Depending on your beliefs, it seems to me that you would conclude that a dead person either (a) doesn't exist, or (b) is supremely unconcerned about such minutiae as what's been done with the meat chariot in which he or she used to motor around. I don't suppose the worms are expected to seek permission before chowing down.

The originally-linked news story says that "BTS has been accused of collecting body parts without donor consent ..." Do donors have to consent to the collection of their body parts? What about the "embryos" that (who?) are destroyed for the purpose of "harvesting" such "parts?" They certainly don't consent. Many will say, of course they don't ... they're not persons. And maybe they're not. But I think they certainly have a better case for personhood than has the gradually-cooling corpse on a mortician's gurney. The difference is a subjective one: we knew the deceased. She had a name, a favorite color, a typical saying, a thousand characteristic things that annoyed or charmed us. The difference is real to us ... but is it fundamental? Should it determine how we treat one or the other?

Many of these useful embryos, we're told, are the unwanted byproducts of in vitro fertilization procedures -- frozen today, and destined for the sink drain tomorrow, or next year. Others, perhaps, are or will be cloned. Are there good purposes to be served by what we do to them? No doubt, there are. Is there a price to be paid? I think there is: the certainty that, with each passing year, we'll be contemplating more and more of this creepazoid stuff. We'll get used to it, maybe. It will bother us less and less. That sounds like a good thing.

I'm pretty sure it's very, very bad.

1 comment:

lemming said...

Some faiths believe that what happens to the body after death is actually quite important, as proper internment is essential to reaching the afterlife.

My problem with this desecration is that it was done without any consideration for the wishes of the deceased or their families. As that great bastion of news People magazine noted, leaving aside issues of life and death, there's the little matter of falsifying the age and cause of death. I'm proud to be an organ doner, but if I die of bone cancer, I wouldn't want someone to recieve any part of my skeleton. (This is what was done with Alastair Cooke's body.)