When the transplant team and anatomy laboratories in search of corpses come knocking…

A relevant ethical issue in transplant procedures is the autonomy of the donor and respect for the peace and privacy they need as they approach the end of their life. However, in countries where euthanasia and assisted death are legal, the donor and their family could be more strongly pressured to make a quicker decision, not only by the transplant team who need organs to be retrieved in optimal condition and therefore in a timely manner, but by anatomy laboratories in search of corpses. 

In this sense, an article published in The Global and Mail, April 12, 2019, claims that Canada’s law on assisted suicide “opens up an important new source of good-quality cadavers, but it also raises delicate questions about how anatomy programs should deal with grievously ill patients and families who contact them about body donation while they are exploring the option of a physician-assisted death”.

What are the anatomy laboratories professionals doing now, when a new opportunity appears?

Dr. Wainman, director of the Education Program in Anatomy at McMaster University in Hamilton, says, “We spend a lot of time telling people – and we certainly believe it – that donating your body for education and research purposes is a noble, altruistic and good act. We want to make sure that these vulnerable people who are trying to decide whether their life is worth living, that we’re not providing them with some reason to end their life.” We hope so.

Guidelines on medical assistance in dying (MAID) body donations

The issue was aproached in a recent study in the journal Anatomical Science Education (March 8, 2019) focusing on the bioethical implication of this practice and suggested the development of ethically appropriate guidelines on medical assistance in dying (MAID) body donations which positively guide the anatomical community.

The article considers the sensitive and controversial issue in this way, Around the world, the recent introduction of assisted death laws has meant that undertaking medical assistance in dying (MAID) is now an option for some persons wishing to end their life.

Some of these people donate their bodies to medical science, and by doing so have created a new route from which donor programs can now receive bodies. Such donations have also illuminated a myriad of novel ethical questions. This article considers the emotive and controversial topic of MAID in relation to body donation, describing the experiences of McMaster University, Canada, where several MAID body donors have been received by the anatomical donor program. It provides background on the development and implementation of MAID in Canada, and describes the experience of staff and students at McMaster to MAID donations. It also explores the relevance of MAID to body donation programs, and discusses several of the ethical challenges facing body donation programs who may encounter MAID body donors. These include the appropriateness of accepting MAID donors, issues with informed consent, the effect of personal engagement with MAID donors, information sharing around MAID donations, governance issues, and negative historical parallels between MAID and euthanasia. Suggestions on how to manage MAID body donation focus on how issues affecting institutions, faculty, and students may be approached utilizing appropriate transparency and communication, some of which may facilitate student professional development around the topic of MAID. It is also suggested that the development of ethically appropriate guidelines on MAID body donations may positively guide the anatomical community.