I’ve just come back from the Medical Anthropology Network Meeting (5-7 July, Lisbon, Portugal) and the highlight of the 2nd day was an important and one of a kind debate on the ethics of circulation of human remains, with the specific focus on a Portuguese recent case study. Before going into further details, I should mention that the first time I’ve heard about the events in question was at this debate (also many others in the room learnt about it for the first time), and that I had known none of the researchers involved before this. Thus, my understanding of the context of the discussion is based on what was said during the plenary meeting by the participants involved- and on some press stories-. In consequence, I might miss some pieces of information, but I’ve tried to represent the case to the best of what I’ve learnt.
This will be a debate among biological anthropologists that came together in this meeting and are currently engaged in a discussion around the ethics and politics of circulation of human remains, collected to form osteological collections. The debate will take as point of departure the recent polemic that ensued in the press after the Lisbon municipality accepted a proposal for the transportation of human remains of Portuguese origin to a university in Canada, in order to compose a new reference collection for research in forensic and biological anthropology. (Description of the event on the Conference webpage)
It seems that at some point last year, Hugo Cardoso, a Portuguese physical anthropologist who had previously worked in this capacity as ‘researcher and curator at the National Museum of Natural History in Lisbon‘, and who is currently at Simon Fraser University (Canada), has been granted by the Municipality of Lisbon the right to move a certain number of skeletal remains from Lisbon to Canada (during the discussion it has been suggested 100-200). Also, according to Hugo’s intervention during the debate I gather that while he firstly intended this transfer to take the form of a loan (even though a long-term one), because of legal technicalities it has been opted in the end for an act of donation.* What further makes things interesting (and complicated) is that the bones in question seem to originate from contemporary unclaimed graves in Lisbon cemeteries (See also here), individuals who either face being cremated, or to be integrated in the collection of the National Museum of Natural History in Lisbon**. What was also apparent was that this movement of bones had been unknown to the community of Portuguese specialists (or the public’s), up to the moment when they had heard of the Municipalities decision.
The participants at the debate where:
Hugo Cardoso (Simon Fraser University), via Skype
Francisca Alves-Cardoso (CRIA/FCSH-NOVA) – physical anthropologist
Susana Garcia (ISCSP-ULisboa) – physical anthropologist, and one of the voices against the exportation (this being the term used during the debate) of human remains
[chair] Cristiana Bastos (ICS-ULisboa) – cultural anthropologist (her work recently addressed Portuguese colonialism through its health institutions), and convenor of the Conference
Vítor Oliveira Jorge (IHC)- archaeologist and heritage specialist
Francesca De Luca & Ricardo Moreira (ICS-ULisboa)- organisers of the Round Table, cultural anthropologists
The audience: Portuguese & international cultural anthropologists, PhD students, a handful of physical anthropologists, and volunteers
The debate was filmed, so hopefully there will be a video posted soon as well.
In turn, every speaker made their position known, followed by a Q&A session involving the audience. In summary, the positions expressed tackled multiple understandings of what a dead body is, and what its context of framing should be:
- the body as local patrimony: starting from the view that the Portuguese individuals’ bones are a local resource, Susana Garcia raised the question why it was needed to export the human remains in Canada; instead she proposed that Hugo, or other foreign researchers should make use of the great talent of the local Portuguese researchers, and of the osteological materials as well, and to bring their students there if they want to learn hands-on anthropology.
- ‘silencing the contemporary dead‘: Though Francisca Alves-Cardoso did not take a clear position towards the exportation (the term used during the debate) of the remains***, she chose to focus on the power of the words ‘unclaimed bodies’; thus, evaluating the assumptions of the first step in this process, namely that the unclaimed bodies from the Lisbon cemeteries still end up in museum collections today, she pointed at the paradox that while we use these bodies to improve anthropological methods for putting a face to archaeological remains, in parallel we silence and make invisible these contemporary individuals.
- post-colonial and new-colonialist practices: during the debate the issue of colonialist practices has been raised, either implicitly or explicitly, and interestingly by both parties. Those against the exportation of the remains accused Hugo Cardoso of going above the wishes of the local anthropologists, and addressing directly the local municipality (they claimed they were never consulted about this donation, while Hugo Cardoso answered that he had approached Susana Garcia before and she had refused to give consent). Along the same line what became evident was the issue of taking bodies from a country where this seems to be allowed to a country where creating or enlarging human remains collections with local individuals’ bodies is difficult or sometimes impossible, due to ethical regulations. Furthermore, as it is obvious that the Portuguese and Canadian institutions have very different kinds of material resources, a member of the public raised the following point: in order to have publications, to apply for grants or projects- hence to establish yourself as an anthropologist, and to gain visibility-, you need access to study human remains. For Portuguese specialists it is more difficult to be granted (international) funding and they have less resources, so what will happen if they loose the only resource they have? On the other hand, another member of the public, as well as Hugo, raised the point that the Portuguese specialists should make no accusation of colonialist practices given that at one time Portugal has also been a colonial power, and at least some of their collections might fall under the same concerns (a post-colonialism in reverse so to speak). In turn, he claimed that through the study of these individuals he plans on giving a voice to the marginalised.
- the body as ‘valuable for science’: Regarding this last point, the question that I raised during the debate was how did Hugo Cardoso justify the study of these remains? Why 100-200 if they were needed for teaching, and if they are for research, what are his research questions? Nowadays, if one wants to study any kind of osteological material, in light of ethical considerations one needs to demonstrate a legitimate and relevant research agenda. Therefore, as I was completely unfamiliar with this debate, I was really interested in learning his reasons, and to see how was the creation of this small collection legitimised, from his point of view. Unfortunately I received no reply to these questions. In the same time, what became apparent during the debate, as expressed by several speakers or members of the audience, was that these dead bodies ‘have scientific value’, and that this potential appears as self-explanatory and a datum, not something which needs investigation or reflection. This aspect in particular I found worrying.
- bodies, ownership & law: one of the contentious issue were the terms under which the exportation happens- as far as I understood from the debate, the bones will be donated to the Canadian institution, with a permanent cessation of ownership from the Portuguese. Besides the legitimate question which was raised by Susana Garcia- is it ok to export Portuguese individuals to a foreign territory, for scientific purposes?, this also raises some points which were not discussed: who has the right to sample the bones? Can the present owner sell them/donate them further? etc.
- the culture of death in Portugal: the fact that unclaimed bodies can still enlarge anthropological collections made some audience members and the chair, Cristiana Bastos, to rightly point that this case should be integrated in a wider discussion on the cultural view of death and the dead in contemporary Portugal (a member of the public noticed how cremation becomes more and more of an option due to costs, and people seem to care less about the integrity of a dead body, as it was part of a traditional Catholic view).
Overall, I think this debate raised some very important issues of concern and food for thought for all practitioners in the field. Though it might seem a local problem, in reality it brought into view many inter-connected issues that are present in current worldwide anthropological practice.
Firstly, it became evident the need for an international (and local) clear cut legislation that would protect the interests of the remains themselves, and that would also make provisions for such situations (as we have seen, national legislation differ, and sometimes what is missing can have important consequences). Secondly, that understanding the practices of physical anthropologists and of collections should be placed in the wider death&body views of the society in question, and/or of the scientific community; physical anthropology and the creation of osteo collections are cultural practices in their own right, and so they should be investigated using concepts such as networks of expertise, legitimacy of knowledge, power relations, gender or colonialist issues, value of a dead body and so on. Thirdly, the dead body is a powerful commodity, and its use brings forth inequalities in contemporary academia, which need to be discussed. In the process, the bodies can turn into tools for the advancement of careers and personal agendas, and this raises in my view important ethical concerns. These concerns also hit home for me, coming from an institute in Eastern Europe which hosts an important osteo collection, and which has attracted over the years the attention of Western researchers. Of course no case is simple or clear cut, and academic knowledge and projects should go beyond national boundaries and research traditions, but in the process we should also be careful not to create or enforce inequalities, or unbalanced power relations.
But what I think is the most important lesson from this debate is that our first concern should be for the dead individuals in question, and that we should try and avoid making them invisible, as Francisca pointed out.
I should also mention that I really enjoyed seeing this debate take place- bringing together all parties involved, and establishing dialogue, is a great example to be followed. In the same time, though we might disagree on what should happen with dead human remains, I think that the points raised at the table deserve open debate, and this event was a very good starting point- unfortunately there are not many such events happening in current academia.
*, **,*** UPDATE (16 July 2017, 10.06 am): In light of Hugo Cardoso’s informative comment to this blog post, it seems that several points of the case are as follows (see more in the Comments section)
*’However, the transfer was being treated as a donation only until a few months ago, when a group of my peers in Portugal met with the City Hall and expressed their concerns. Since then, the terms have been formally changed to a temporary loan and a new vote from the City Council is required to approve it.’
** ‘In terms of the origin of the remains being contemporary unclaimed remains in the Lisbon cemeteries, the issue is a bit more complex. These are remains that are interred in temporary graves and then exhumed and re-interred in above ground secondary plots that are also temporary. This is common practice in several urban cemeteries in Portugal, Southern Europe and South America. In Portugal, these unclaimed remains do not face incorporation in the collection of the National Museum of Natural History as you seem to be describing as a rule. Some of these remains in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s did get incorporated in the collection (as similar remains were incorporated in similar collections in Portugal, Southern Europe and South America), but their fate is cremation or, as is the case in some jurisdictions, re-internment in communal graves. This renovation of graves in cemeteries occurs on a regular basis and unclaimed remains have been incorporated into collections in Portugal since the late 19th century. As a note, the National Ethics Commission for the Life Sciences and the National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences in Portugal provided formal letters to the Lisbon City Council that expressed a favorable position towards a donation. ‘
*** Hugo Cardoso’s position is that ‘Considering that the transportation of remains from Portugal to Canada is being undertaken as a loan, I don’t think exportation is the correct term to use throughout this discussion.’
I am grateful to my grant through which I could attend the Conference, a project at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research which has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 701230
Source of featured image: http://www.museus.ulisboa.pt/en/node/126