Should we consider the privacy or reputation of the individual when analysing an Egyptian mummy? The assumption that ancient corpses are fair game for science is beginning to be challenged.
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.