By Nonie Arora

Duke student Meredith Rahman is intrigued by how we justify treatment of the dead for the sake of science. She asked her audience at the Duke-UNC Bioethics Symposium: How can we interact with human remains in an ethical way?

Duke Student Meredith Rahman Presents at Duke-UNC Bioethics Symposium. Credit: Nonie Arora

Rahman began the discussion by explaining how bodies are obtained for use after death. “Historically, there was great fear about grave robbings to further science,” she says, “but that has since calmed down.” Now, many bodies are obtained through donation, and we legitimize the use of bodies through prior consent when the subjects are still alive. In the 1980s however, the Body Farm in Knoxville, TN took unclaimed bodies from medical examiner’s offices to study decomposition, she added.

Rahman discussed what can happen when we can no longer speak for ourselves. There can be tension between the wishes of the deceased and wishes of the family members, and it can be hard to give a voice to those who have already passed away. This is similar to situations in which family members may override do not resuscitate (DNR) orders, Rahman clarified.

There’s a further issue of consent even when a person has signed a donor card to say that they want to donate their body to science: they don’t always know how their body will be used. “It could be an undergraduate student, such as myself, going into the lab and learning basic anatomy, or it could be an MD practicing a specific surgical skill. But when you consent to donate your body to science, you no longer have a say over what happens,” she said.

A plastinated human body exhibited at the Body Worlds show, Museum of Natural History, San Diego, 2009. Credit: Wikicommons. Photograph by Patty Mooney, Crystal Pyramid Productions, San Diego, California.

Some exhibits transform human remains for science education, such as the Body Worlds exhibit, according to Rahman. Body Worlds relies on a technique called plastination, which essentially turns human soft tissue into plastic. The result is a body that is about twenty percent human materials. She said that while these bodies can be effective teaching tools, there are ethical considerations, especially when commercial interests are involved and the primary purpose is public viewing rather than scientific development. The audience was shocked to hear that “slices of human” are available for purchase.

Rahman’s presentation was part of the Duke-UNC Bioethics Symposium, Ethical Frontiers in Research, a student-run conference developed by the Duke Undergraduate Bioethics Society (DUBS) and Carolina Bioethics Scholars (CUBS). This year, the organizations have received funding from the Kenan-Biddle Partnership grant as well as the Kenan Institute for Ethics and the Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities & History of Medicine. As part of the Kenan-Biddle partnership, they are hosting an ongoing series of dinner discussions on bioethical topics. The next event will be hosted by UNC on Feb. 28; Dr. Steven Gray will discuss how gene therapy clashes with traditional pharmaceutical business models.

As an executive board member for DUBS, I am excited to continue our collaboration with UNC students. Although basketball rivalries may pull us apart, last weekend we found that lively ethical conversations can bring us together.