Page URL: https://www.progress.org.uk/ncobbodies23

This policy document is part of a response submitted by the Progress Educational Trust (PET) to the Nuffield Council on Bioethics' Consultation on Human Bodies in Medicine and Research.


Are there circumstances in which it is ethically acceptable to use human bodily material for additional purposes for which explicit consent was not given?

Yes, there are circumstances in which it is ethically acceptable to use human bodily material for additional purposes for which explicit consent was not given.

As explained in LINK(1097,our answer to Question 2)}, stem cells are special inasmuch as they have greater potential than other cells in the body to differentiate into different types of cells. Stem cell lines are families of constantly dividing cells derived from an initial group of stem cells, and it would be prohibitively difficult to subject the uses of all cells in a stem cell line to the same standards of consent as applied to the original stem cells. The possible and desirable uses of stem cell lines are constantly changing as science develops, and cannot be foreseen in such a way as to obtain advance consent. Tracing stem cell donors to obtain explicit consent for new research stages may be disproportionally onerous.

In the USA's 1990 case Moore v Regents of University of California, a patient with leukaemia alleged the commercial exploitation of his cell line, and argued that as the owner of the cells, his property right had been compromised by the work carried out on them. The court ruled that he had effectively abandoned the cells when he surrendered them to his physicians, and that it was inappropriate to recognise property in the body. Had the court ruled in favour of Moore, this would have effectively created a 'litigation lottery' for every researcher who works with cell samples, and would have impeded development in science and medicine.

After evaluating the legal and ethical dimensions of the property proposal, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics recommended in its 1995 report Human Tissue: Ethical and Legal Issues that human tissue should not be treated as a commodity, and that taking and using it should be managed through a framework of consent, with an immorality exclusion applied to patents in the area of human and animal tissue.