Review of Public Debate “Restless dead bodies: the ethics of circulation of human remains” (EASA Medical Anthropology Network Conference|Lisbon 2017)

cartazI’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:

IMG_20170706_184830

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

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3 thoughts on “Review of Public Debate “Restless dead bodies: the ethics of circulation of human remains” (EASA Medical Anthropology Network Conference|Lisbon 2017)

  1. Reblogged this on DivMeanBody: Divergent Meanings: understanding the postmortem fate of human bodies found in Neolithic settlements from the Balkan area in light of interdisciplinary data and commented:

    Last week I’ve been to EASA Medical Anthropology Network Conference|Lisbon 2017 and talked about the body in archives as a body-archive, bearing inscribed scientific practices and epistems. As part of this even, there was a very interesting public debate and here is its review:

  2. Dear Alexandra,

    Thank you for your interest and for attending the debate. This is a fascinating topic that I hope to discuss more broadly and in a number different ways. I do understand that what you review here is based on a cursory knowledge of the issue and by what you learned during the debate. This perhaps explains several imprecisions. Unfortunately, on my side, it seems that I may have been misunderstood or was perhaps not entirely clear. For the sake of a healthy and honest discussion, I feel that these imprecisions need to be corrected and a few key points clarified. Nonetheless and for the most part, I think you’ve done an excellent job of representing the case. I’m happy to know that the debate was filmed and I too hope the video gets posted.

    Let me start by saying that the transfer of remains was dealt as a donation mainly due to technical issues, but it was always discussed with the City Hall as temporary loan from the get-go. 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. The letter provided by the National Ethics Commission (if you can read Portuguese) is a public document and is available here: http://www.cnecv.pt/admin/files/data/docs/1446826133_Parecer%2085CNECV2015.pdf

    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. Foreign researchers, I and my students do travel to Portugal to study the many osteological materials available. Osteological materials are also loaned to institutions for study and long-term curation, for ease of access, save up on travel costs, and continuity of long-term work. In this particular case, the remains will be cremated by the cemetery and their value as teaching tool lost forever. Furthermore, I think that framing it as a loan addresses a number of other concerns, including the transportation of remains to countries where it is difficult to create similar collections, due to legal and cultural differences. There seems to have been a clear miscommunication here as my initial intervention was aimed specifically at clarifying that this is not a donation and that there is no permanent cessation of ownership from the Portuguese.

    I’m not so sure that the material gap between Portuguese and Canadian institutions is that large, or whether it is more perceived rather than real. This needs perhaps to be demonstrated, and I’ve worked on both sides of the Atlantic. There is no doubt that there are some differences – I was not able to find a permanent position in Portugal, for example. I’m also not sure that it is more difficult for Portuguese specialists to be granted international funding than Canadians, for the same reason. If perhaps Canadian researchers have more internal funds available, the flip side is that the Canadian physical anthropology community is also much larger, and thus much more competitive, than that of the Portuguese. You also seem to suggest that Portuguese physical anthropologists can’t really be good if they don’t have this competitive advantage over other countries, which seems to diminish the merits of the Portuguese specialists. I don’t think that Portuguese physical anthropologists (and I’m including myself in the group) deserve being described in such a way.

    I’m sorry that I did not get the chance to answer your question, but as you were certainly aware, there were several questions raised by the audience, and there was very little time to respond. In addition, I was skyping in during the debate, and questions from the audience were often hard to follow due to audio issues. The 100-200 is a rough figure and reflects a formal necessity to have a number on paper, as any actual number of skeletons to transport to Canada depends on various factors, one of the most important ones is cost of shipping. As you know, variation is a key component of teaching human osteology, particularly if it is being taught at more introductory and then more advanced levels. A number of research questions that can be addressed with these skeletons, which include aspects of the health, well-being and stress experienced by these individuals as a consequence of the socioeconomic and political context in which they lived, but also exploring methods of skeletal analysis, as these individuals are of known age and sex. Research undertaken on these skeletons has a number of benefits, one of the clearest one is perhaps to improve our methods of forensic analysis, for example. Important as well, is to reflect on the use of these remains, and voice the lives and deaths of these individuals as a means to express that reflection.

    In terms of issues that are present in current worldwide anthropological practice, it seems the arguments may require better formulation, to avoid misunderstandings. I would say there is a considerable risk in trying to legislate all aspects of research and/or social life. Many conflicts can be resolved using existing legislation or drawn from general principles, provisions and practice of the existing legislation by analogy, as it is common in various areas of the law (the letter from the National Ethics Commission for the Life Sciences In Portugal mentioned earlier is perhaps a good example). It seems to me that it can be particularly problematic to legislate to protect the “interests of the remains themselves”, for a number of reasons, including the fact that various legislation already exists to regulate the use of the dead body for research.

    Thanks again for your interest and for sharing your thoughts. I’m happy to answer more questions and/or clarify any remaining issues. All the best,

    Hugo Cardoso

  3. Thank you for your comment Hugo! I think it is very important to hear the arguments and thoughts of those involved. In the same time, thank you for the clarifications (the contextual information that was presented on the day was minimal indeed)- I have updated the post in light of them and now the readers can see your points as well. I thought this was an important debate, and beyond the specific case in question-which is mostly of relevance to the local parties involved-, it generated questions which can be taken as
    conversation starters about the fate of non-indigenous remains in osteo collections in other parts of the world/contexts too. For this reason I thought it was important to highlight and review them. Traditionally ethical provisions have focused a lot on indigenous collections, and on some medical materials (e.g. tissues yes, blood less so), but less on existing osteo collections/some kinds of archaeological skeletons/contemporary individuals (e.g. the cases of metal detecting and exhumations of war graves). And I think these should be reflected upon in the same way as the former. As to the answers to these questions I am sure that there are many different possibilities, so it’s important and useful to have the dialogue started, and to make explicit our positions. After all we all share the passion and interest for the anthropological discipline, and for all of us it is a continuous quest of reflection.

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