New Scientist reports on the debate about whether people have privacy rights after they die.
Though strict ethical guidelines apply to research on modern tissue samples, up until now there has been little discussion about work on ancient human remains. In a recent paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics (DOI: 10.1136/jme.2010.036608), anatomist Frank Rühli and ethicist Ina Kaufmann of the University of Zurich, Switzerland, argue that this is disturbing because research on mummies is invasive and reveals intimate information such as family history and medical conditions. And, of course, the subjects cannot provide consent.
“The human body, alive or dead, has a moral value,” says Rühli, who is himself involved in mummy research. He says that no matter how old a body is, researchers must balance the benefits of their research against the potential rights and desires of the deceased individual. […]
Others in the field take a different view. Franco Rollo of the University of Camerino, Italy, has worked on Ötzi the iceman (pictured), who died around 3300 BC and whose mummified remains were found in the Alps in 1991. Rollo argues that ethical considerations are minimal if remains 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”.