Saturday, January 07, 2006


There is a new frontier in medical ethics: the morgue. According to an article in the Chicago Sun-Times researchers are increasingly interested in using the recently departed in all manner of trials that could not be safely or ethically conducted using the living.

And with this development several ethicists have been dragged away from contemplating the thorny question "When does life begin?" to consider when it ends, and how science should proceed after it does.
Determining that somebody is dead is not always a straightforward proposition. As Robert Sapolsky writes, "cultures...differ as to when they decide someone is good and dead. And sometimes, individuals whom we would consider robustly alive are considered dead." ("Monkeyluv", 189-190). That's sufficient reason to make pronouncements of death with care, especially before proceeding with scientific research.

But even in those cases were the person is unambiguously dead - don't think Terry Schiavo, think rotting corpse - it goes without saying that the dead should be treated with dignity and with respect. Indeed, the suggestion that "respect for persons, a pivotal principle in research ethics, should be extended to the recently dead," is a key component of a new set of voluntary research guidelines. But with all due respect to both the living and the dead, recently or otherwise, I have to wonder, "why?"

Why is it that the dead are worth - both emotionally and financially - so much to us? We cringe at the thought of their dissection, and spend small (and sometimes very large) fortunes to entomb them in style. Why such a large investment for these no-longer-people? According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the Funeral Industry alone generates $11 billion in annual revenue. Why not save our tears, and our money, to benefit the living (or future generations)?

I strongly suspect that there are colorable anthropological explanations for our treatment of and attitudes toward the dead. I also suspect that, like so many behaviors and attitudes that are so obvious and widespread that they are rarely if ever questioned, many of these may now be anachronistic and, at least in some respects, unnecessary. As long as we're bringing in the ethicists to scrutinize how science handles our dead, mightn't we ask them to scrutinize, at the same time, the unquestioned assumptions underlying our own treatment of the dead?


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