Consent and the Use of the Bodies of the Dead

Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 37 (5):445-463 (2012)
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Gametes, tissue, and organs can be taken from the dying or dead for reproduction, transplantation, and research. Whole bodies as well as parts can be used for teaching anatomy. While these uses are diverse, they have an ethical consideration in common: the claims of the people whose bodies are used. Is some use permissible only when people have consented to the use, actually wanted the use, would have wanted the use, not opposed the use, or what? The aim of this article is to make progress in answering these questions. Initially I assume knowledge of people’s desires in order to test whether consent is directly required by their rights without worrying about mistaken uses against their wishes. I claim consent is not directly required by people’s rights. If we know people wanted or would want a use, their rights permit the use, but if we know they wanted or would want not to be used, their rights do not permit the use. The knowledge assumption is then dropped and the question becomes how to decide what to do when the wishes of rightholders are not known. I suggest working out what to do when wishes are known and then adjusting, on the basis of whatever evidence there is, for probability and strength of desire. There are other considerations too, for instance about default rules. The key general comment here is that, in setting rules, the costs to rightholders in not getting what they want needs to be taken into account. The final section tries to show that, in setting these rules, mistaken uses are not to be taken as worse than mistaken failure to use



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