Do ancient Egyptian mummies have rights to
privacy or reputation? While working on modern tissue samples has been subject
to strict ethical guidelines, little discussion has taken place about ancient
human remains. But a recent paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics by ethicist
Ina Kaufmann and anatomist Frank Rühli, of the University of Zürich, claims
that research on mummies is invasive, revealing intimate information such as
family history and medical conditions. The mummified subjects cannot provide
consent – but surely they should be treated with respect.
Rühli, who is involved in mummy research,
says “The human body, alive or dead, has a moral value”. He also says
that researchers must balance the benefits of their research against the
deceased individual’s rights and desires, no matter how old a body is.
Franco Rollo of the University of Camerino
in Italy, disagrees. He worked on Ötzi the iceman, who died in 5,000 years ago
and whose mummified remains were found in the Alps in 1991. Rollo believes
ethical considerations are somewhat insignificant if the remains in question
are “old enough to belong to an historical and social epoch that is felt
sufficiently different and far from the present one by most people”.
Søren Holm, bioethicist and philosopher at
the University of Manchester, in the UK, believes researchers should think
consider whether their work is motivated by scientific inquiry or simply
curiosity. He says it would be difficult to devise an all-encompassing policy,
but believes a checklist of questions for consideration would be useful.
However Rühli says scientists should take personal responsibility. “If a
researcher is planning to work on a mummy, I would like to see that he thinks
about it.” ~ New
Scientist, Sept 10; Journal of Medical Ethics, DOI:
respect for cadavers
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