What rights does a corpse have?

Lee Kinkade’s comment in another post here on Cyde Weys Musings led me to thinking: what rights does a corpse have? Or, perhaps more accurately, what rights do the relatives of a dead person have regarding the body? Why do they have any at all?

Let me start off by agreeing wholeheartedly with the moral principle that says that no innocent person can be forced to give their life against their will to save others, even if, numerically, more lives are saved overall. There’s a question that ethicists have devised to test this moral principle. It goes like this: “Seven people are admitted to the hospital. They are all perfectly healthy except each one needs a different organ transplant or they will die (heart, liver, kidney, whatever), and one of the seven happens to be a match for all of the organs that the other six need. Do you sacrifice the one person and distribute his organs such that six more may live?” The answer was pretty much the same across all cultures the question was asked of: nearly everyone says no (and if you feel up to it, ask yourself the question and respond in the comments).

However, there’s a different question that elicits many more positive responses. Six people are trapped in a vehicle that is stuck on train tracks, with a train barreling towards them. You have access to a switch that will divert the train, but unfortunately, there is someone else on the detour track who will inadvertently die if the train is diverted. Do you do it? Many people (me included) would say yes. It’s very tragic, and I wouldn’t make the decision lightly, but numerically, one death is better than six deaths. Contrast this with the previous dilemma; the ethical difference is that it is okay if someone dies accidentally in saving more lives, but it isn’t okay to purposefully sacrifice someone against their will to save others. In the train analogy, that would be akin to throwing a person onto the tracks to derail the train before it hits the carload of six people. Again, most people would say that that is unacceptable.

What I’m getting at with all of this, of course, is that isn’t it always better to sacrifice zero lives versus allowing the death of any positive number of people? I am, of course, talking about corpses. In this modern age, we can use many of the organs in corpses to save others’ lives. And we often do. But what about when the person isn’t an organ donor? Do we respect their wishes, or their family’s wishes, to not have their corpse used to save other lives? My answer, and this is where I disagree with Lee Kinkade, is no. Saving lives is more important than respecting wishes.

Corpses have no real value other than as their use as fodder for organs for saving other lives (though somehow people manage to give them all sorts of sentimental value). The person who died should have absolutely no say over what becomes of their corpse, because after all, how does anything that happens to your corpse affect you after your death? You’re dead. You aren’t thinking about anything, let alone worrying about what happens to the shell of what was once you. What right do you have to be selfish and allow your corpse to rot away in the ground (or be incinerated or whatever) when it could have a beneficial use for other people who are still living? What difference does it really make if your corpse is buried completely intact, or missing a few organs? You’ll be worm food either way, and in the long run, nothing will be left of your corpse anyway.

I’m even entertaining the thought that bodies should become property of the government after death, to be used in whatever way is best. To me, that makes more sense than assuming that the corpse automatically becomes property of the closest surviving relative. I value human life and human intelligence greatly, but once that human is dead, they are no longer a human; they are simply meat. And I don’t attach any special significance to meat, even though I know many people’s religions tell them otherwise. But people have all sorts of irrational, contradictory beliefs; we shouldn’t just go around catering to every one of them merely because the person sincerely believes in them, especially when those beliefs interfere with saving other human lives.

I know there are some other issues at stake here, like the possibility that hospitals will carve up living but weakened people to harvest the organs, or perhaps let some poor person die rather than curing them if they happened to be a match for a rich person who needed a transplant. These issues are important, but they are separate, and could be addressed with very rigorous ethical rules regarding when bodies can be carved up. I don’t think these issues are a deal breaker for enforced organ donation; on the balance, I’d rather have enforced donation coupled with strict ethical rules rather than prohibiting the donations in fear of these concerns.

The short and sweet version of all of this is, I do not believe it is acceptable to sacrifice someone against their will so that others may live. But I do believe that not only is it acceptable to use someone’s corpse so that others may live, it is a moral imperative to do so, regardless of any objections by them or their family. Let the discussion begin in the comments below; there many be some issues I haven’t thought of yet, and this topic seems like it’ll be a lively one. Tell your friends about this too.

9 Responses to “What rights does a corpse have?”

  1. drinian Says:

    Honestly, I thought this was going to be about zombies.

    Actually, in China, corpse burial is banned for several reasons — one is the Communist desire to prohibit traditional Chinese funerals, which can go on for months and cost huge amounts of money. Everyone is cremated (unless, I suppose, you give the right people the right amount of money). That’s certainly a good public health measure as well.

    But requiring cremation, or organ donation, for everyone in the US would be tantamount to unnecessary regulation of individual religious beliefs. If you look at case law on how far religious freedom goes, you’ll find that religious practices are generally permitted in the US when they don’t violate the law or gain special privilege (no religions that believe in not paying taxes); likewise, the law should presuppose a varying community of beliefs and build a common standard. (Up until the mid-19th century there were sporadically enforced blasphemy laws, however, based on the common law). So you could argue to a court that refusing to provide transplants would constitute an unfair privilege granted to some believers before the law. You could argue it, but you’d lose, and like you said, most people would agree with the judge.

    More to the point, everyone is entitled to a will detailing how their possessions are to be disposed of, and certainly your body is your oldest and most valuable possession. It’s no more or less a right than any other accorded to human beings throughout their lifetime. I’d be curious to see the numbers on how many people are registered donors through the driver’s license system; if those numbers are high, then really your proposal wouldn’t provide much more public benefit anyway. I have to believe that you can’t get many quality organs out of people dying of old age or terminal illness.

    Hopefully this will all be moot in a few years. Science tends to move faster than legislation.

  2. William Says:

    Logically, I see where you’re coming from and agree that there are not enough good reasons not to make organ donation necessary.
    But it doesn’t feel right. I have no particular religious beliefs, but I’ll say that I feel I’ve got some say in how my body’s used, even after I’m dead. I mean, look at it from a standpoint of patents. It’s pretty hard to have prior art on a person, unless you take humanity as the prior art. And that’d be like saying “Well, somebody else made software once, so you can’t patent that.” Patent, trademark, copyright? Left? Down? I don’t know. Laws pertaining to those things make no sense to me.
    Failing that, I will learn to hunt bears left-handed in my old age. Or something. I’m not against donating my organs, and am a registered organ donor, but I like that that’s my choice.

  3. Jens 'Spacejens' Rydholm Says:

    While I agree completely that corpses should be used and handled in whatever way benefits society and other people the most, many hold other opinions.

    A more fair and still very useful regulation would be to make organ donation opt-out instead of opt-in. This way, only the individuals who object strongly enough to fill in a form and tell the government about it would become wasted resources when they die. This would make a lot more tissue available for medical use, and the wishes of religious individuals would still be honored. I think this would be a good middle-ground type of solution.

  4. Lee Kinkade Says:

    I don’t trust people enough to make organ donation opt out, or mandatory. I think that either of those will lead to overzealous manufacture of corpses and an even more thriving and shady corpse market than we already have. I don’t expect the marked in people parts to be any less corrupt than the market in used auto parts. Not only does that mean people losing their life, it means we will have a corpse supply that is not as traceable as the one we have today. The more corpses in the market, the harder they will be to trace. What to we do? Mark everyone permanently in several places so that we can trace their parts better? I suppose that could be posed as a solution to identity theft before or after death.

    We already have a huge problem with corpse being chopped up and used against the family’s will by unscrupulous funeral home directors. The papers on these corpses have often been filled out however profits the person selling the corpse which has meant that corpses which are wholly unsuitable to be used for bone donation and other things have been used for them. We cannot source a corpse properly without the cooperation of family, or a much more massively connected and invasive medical records system than we already have. We need to know, at the very least, what the person died of, and what their recent medical history was.

    And people are variable enough and the need for certain organ matches so great that even if the government owns the corpse, there will be money in making sure certain corpses make their way to certain people/places. This provides a pressure for forging a corpse’s records. And it is not just that the rich might get the organs of the poor. People who the doctors like better will get the organs of those the doctors or nurses liked less.

    And organ re-use provides another life cycle opportunity for potential diseases and so massive scale organ re-use seems unwise for the same reasons that feeding their own waste to chickens is. Religions promoting careful corpse disposal has practical value. I don’t think we have figured out alternative solutions to all the problems it solves.

  5. Cyde Weys Says:

    I suppose I do trust people enough. Yes, there are possible problems, but many of them are rather unlikely. Ultimately, I think the lives that will be saved outweigh those concerns. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t have strong safety and ethics laws in place — far from it! But I think those laws can be made well enough, and ensure enough compliance, that the rewards of the program will exceed the risks of the program. Changing organ donation from opt-in to opt-out would be a good stepping-stone along the path of what I ultimately envision.

    And just to clear up some confusion I seem to have caused, when I say “corpses become the property of the government,” I’m not talking about creating a new agency that goes out and collects the corpse of every one who died. In the vast majority of cases, nothing would change. Hospitals would run their tests on the blood types of those who have died, and if the organs are a match, they are used. The body would still be returned to the relatives after all the necessary parts are extracted (if they want it). The only situation in which the government owning the body would change anything is if doctors determined a corpse could yield useful transplants and the patients refused. That’s when the government (in the form of a hospital administrator backed up by police if necessary) would step in and say “We need these organs” — which they’d only be able to do if they did technically own the corpse.

  6. Gregory Maxwell Says:

    On thought that comes into my mind is … How long do you have to be a medical professional before disassembling one person to fix a couple of others starts to look vanishingly similar to your switch flipping example? Eventually it’s reduced just a checkbox on some forms for some overseeing physician .. after all.

    And there are certainly cases where a doctors looks at someone and thinks “this one is a gonner”, yet given their fair chance they sometimes pull through… if there is an incentive of organ harvest, will they still get the same chance?

    Lee nailed the immunological issues with organ donation, so I won’t repeat her arguments.

    If we were really serious about having organs on hand we could avoid these issues by growing pre-birth lobotomized spare humans. 0_o. Well at least that would replace the risks of organ harvesting with a whole new ball of wax. What are your thoughts there?

    And what of people who wish to be cryonically frozen. Okay, people frozen today might well not be recoverable, but there is no strong proof that they won’t be. Later freezing tech will likely have improved odds. Given that I’d argue that your campaign of organ harvest is quite possibly a campaign of mass murder.

    Sure, organ donation saves (some) lives. But a compulsory program *would* cost come lives, though we could debate on the magnitude. So you’re back in the boat of arguing the value of some number vs some other numbers. I don’t think we’re culturally mature enough to have that debate yet. Instead we should start by asking ourselves why we are spending no money, by comparison, on curing the number one cause of death.

  7. William Says:

    That was a pretty neat story and it was only painfully heavy-handed.
    If nothing else, I think I’ll toss that at people and see how they react to it. Thanks for the link.

  8. avatar Says:

    Sir, i will agree, if it is possible to ask a corpse what it wants other than to decompose. And it also has the right to refuse, because no one has the inherent right to damage or steal private property, especially a human body.

    If I did not explicitly will my body to the organ harvester, my body cannot be harmed or dissected in any way by any human being.

    I suggest that you look into other ways of treating health problems, like heart disease and cancer, and reducing automobile casualties. Or stem cells.

  9. Chinca Salas Says:

    Segun las leyes la importancia juridica del cadaver y sobre los motivos de la muerte como sobre los derechos de las personas sobre el cadaver nos lleva a ver dos puntos importantes sobre el cadaver:

    – Si el cadaver tiene bienes y herederos

    -Si el cadaver tiene quien le reclame a la hora de que su cuerpo sea hallado

    Con respecto al primero, si tiene dinero al conocerse de su desaparicion, sobra quien le busque, reclame y acuda al abogado del diablo para reclamar todos los bienes.

    El segundo nos lleva a ver la aberracion de los familiares por ejemplo:
    Si el pobre es un delincuente este no sera solicitado ante la policia, el hospital ni al cementerio

    Pero si el difunto dejo carta donde dona sus bienes mas preciado, veremos entonces un JUICIO POR PLEITO DE BIENES
    Nos encontramos entonces con diversos derechos y obligaciones, orden sucesorio, destino del cuerpo, desviaciones de la informacion, causa de la muerte, relacion con el cuerpo, tendencias inhumana en el trato o manejo del cuerpo; el proceso de la criminalista a ver con detalles los verdaderos herederos y la importancia del DERECHO AL CADAVER.