Consent and nothing but consent? The organ retention scandal

School of Applied Social Studies, Faculty of Health and Social Care, The Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, UK.
Sociology of Health & Illness (Impact Factor: 1.88). 12/2007; 29(7):1023-42. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9566.2007.01031.x
Source: PubMed


The organ retention scandal arose in the UK in the autumn of 1999 when knowledge of the practice of organ and tissue retention after post-mortem for subsequent diagnostic, teaching, audit and research purposes fully entered the public domain. Many families were shocked and distressed to realise that by allowing a post-mortem on their relative or child they were also deemed to have agreed to the long-term retention of organs and tissues and thus had buried or cremated, as they perceived it, not a 'whole' body but an 'empty shell'. Subsequently, informed consent was placed at the centre of recommendations for reform, now given expression in the Human Tissue Act (2004). Through a discourse analysis of the documentary evidence produced in the wake of the organ retention scandal, I argue that the emphasis on informed consent masks concerns about body wholeness. In addition, whilst informed consent is posited as key in 'balancing' the rights of the individual over the needs of medical science, this position is tempered by the concurrent presence of notions of the gift relationship and post-mortem citizenship. Incorporating these notions alongside the discourse of consent also renders concerns about the commodification of the body less acute.

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