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3The Independent Weekly
news February 26 - March 4, 2010
Medical researchers may
be illegally using organs
such as brains, kidneys
and lungs sourced from
Coroner s Office autopsies, an
Independent Weekly investigation
Laws requiring family consent
before researchers can use the body
parts have been ignored, breaking
a government commitment given to
1000 grieving relatives in 2002.
Southern Cross Bioethics
Institute director Dr Greg Pike
described it as a breach of trust.
"The central issue here is whether
or not a consent form has been
signed permitting the use of organs
or tissues removed during autopsy
for later use for medical, scientific or
therapeutic purposes," Dr Pike said.
"Hospitals -- where about 10 per
cent of autopsies are arranged -- are
using the consent forms. But the
Coroner s office, which authorises
90 per cent of autopsies, has no
consent form in use at all.
"This is despite the intentions of
amendments to the Transplantation
and Anatomy Act in 2005."
In 2001, then health minister
Lea Stevens invited families to a
service for babies who had organs
removed for medical research --
without relatives consent.
"It is my hope and my
commitment that this will never
ever happen again," Ms Stevens said
at the time.
A government report, Retention
of Body Parts After Post-Mortems,
made a series of recommendations
centred on the principle that
"the dead should be treated with
But after nine years of
representations by ethicists and the
Catholic Archbishop of Adelaide,
two people who took part in a
community consultative committee
have told The Independent Weekly
they are deeply disappointed with
official responses to their concerns.
"We had been frustrated by a
lack of response from government
officials on whether or not consent
forms had been designed and if they
were being used," said Dr Pike.
Working with a north-eastern
suburbs mother whose daughter
was killed in a road accident, Dr
Pike continued to seek assurances.
The woman, a community
member on the consultative
committee, approached Liberal
MLC Michelle Lensink, who filed
Freedom of Information requests
to have the consent form and
associated documents released.
"We received a reply on
February 17, which released a
memo from Health Minister John
Hill to the Coroner, pointing out the
amended Act s provisions requiring
consent," Ms Lensink said.
"But the memo only suggested the
Coroner consider using the form
developed by the Government for
use in hospital autopsies. When I
asked why they had not released the
actual form itself, I was told by the
FOI officer that there wasn t one.
"We were stunned."
Dr Pike, a co-member on the
community consultative committee
and Ms Lensink were all taken
aback, given assurances made in
2005 and in the four-and-a-half years
"There was a committee set up to
look at hospital autopsies and we
came up with reasonable consent
forms, described as instruments of
authorisation ," Dr Pike said.
"This covered the autopsies done
in hospitals and we had been told
the same consent forms would apply
to coronial autopsies.
"It s my belief that the absence of
these forms means there is potential
here for the Act being breached.
"There is a primary principle at
Dr Pike and his committee
members were not the only ones
frustrated. Catholic Archbishop
Phillip Wilson wrote to the
Attorney-General on behalf of the
north-eastern suburbs woman and
waited eight months to get a reply,
albeit with the question still not
The Independent Weekly sought
clarification from the Courts
Administration Authority (CAA)
on whether or not a consent form
"There are no consent forms,"
CAA spokeswoman Sylvia Kriven
"The Coroner does not need
consent. The Coroner just has
to be satisfied that consent has
been sought and given before a
researcher uses any organs or
tissues for research."
Asked how the Coroner satisfies
himself that consent had been
sought and given, Ms Kriven
replied: "I don t know. Maybe you
should be asking researchers."
Medical research on retained
organs may not occur for some years
after a person s death, by which
time remaining family members
may also be dead or unable to be
contacted. Ms Kriven was unable to
explain how consent might be then
She was also unable to explain
how researchers would be able to
obtain family contact details,
given the restrictions of the Privacy
Act. Only one researcher has
submitted research requests asking
for details of family instructions or
"We need assurance that the
problems revealed nine years
ago when there was widespread
community concern about the
practices in mortuaries have
been properly dealt with," Dr Pike
1996: A Bristol mother
requests her child's records
after the child dies during
heart surgery. She observes
that the heart has been
removed and retained without
her consent. She asks for it to
1998: The subsequent
inquiry into the Bristol Royal
Infirmary reveals professional
arrogance and traditional
paternalism is a "social and
ethical timebomb waiting to
go off". Reforms are recom-
2001: The NSW chief health
officer reports no indication
that current retained organs
are collected illegally. A
month later Channel Nine's
Sunday program reveals a
practice of body snatching and
harvesting of body parts at the
Glebe Mortuary. Its director
stands down and an inquiry is
June 2001: SA Health Minister
Dean Brown tells parliament
almost 2000 organs and
tissues have been illegally
retained at the Women's and
Children's Hospital, a practice
that had stopped in 1990.
He establishes a hotline for
families wanting information
and/or the return of body
parts for burial or cremation.
July 2001: ABC Radio's Drive
program reveals allegations
of medical and pathology
practices in adult institutions
● Brains removed and never
replaced -- without consent;
● Organ swapping from body
to body for convenience;
● Missing bones.
It was also alleged the
practice ceased only after the
Sunday program went to air.
July 2001: Minister Brown com-
missions the Selway Report.
August 2001: Solicitor-
General Brad Selway reports
● Such practices had occurred
in the QEH mortuary, "done by
mortuary technicians acting
without any real supervision";
● Medical training using
body parts removed without
consent continued until
1995 and "if the mortuary
technicians were lazy or slack,
one means of disposing of the
organs would be to place them
in another body";
● Most of the complaints
relate to the failure by the
hospitals and the Coroner to
properly inform the next of
kin as to what has occurred.
This has caused considerable
distress sometimes many
years after the deaths. But the
actions of the hospitals and
the Coroner were simply the
result of a system and process
which was both "paternalistic
began with the simple state-
ment that the dead should be
treated with respect.
April 2002: State, territory
and federal health ministers
agree on a National Code of
Ethical Autopsy Practice.
July 2002: 1000 grieving
relatives attend memorial
service at Seaton Family
Christian Church. Health
Minister Lea Stevens
promises "it will never, ever
2004: Transplantation and
Examinations) Amendment Act
introduced into parliament.
2005: Transplantation Act
passes both houses of
March 2008: Health Minister
John Hill writes to the Coroner
requesting he use the agreed
consent form. There is no
reply to the memo.
February 2010: Coroner's
office confirms there is no
BODY SNATCHERS: RESEARCH WITHOUT CONSENT
Researchers' organ failure
Digital image: Iva Knezevic
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