The largest ethical concern for identifying dead bodies is retaining the DNA because it is must be protected to ensure the right to privacy. Although it contains information about a person’s family and genetic predisposition to diseases, laws have been adopted for the protection of genetic data. An IRC workshop in 2002 examined national legislation and compiled a set of legal principles concerning the protection of personal and genetic data that must be respected in all circumstances. Some of these principles are as follows: biological samples left by the missing person, either as medical samples or other biological artifacts; the consent of the individual is required for the collection and use of personal data, except if required by a substantial public interest or for the protection of the vital interests of the person concerned; personal data may not be used, disclosed or transferred for purposes other than those for which they were collected without the consent of the person concerned, except if required by a substantial public interest or for the protection of the vital interests of the person concerned. These limitations on the deceased give them autonomy for the use of their DNA after their death, but unfortunately makes it harder to identify (ICRC, 39). The dead no longer make decisions when dead, so the need for consent from the a deceased person should not be a principle in retaining their DNA. They embody a distinct identity in the minds of living, making it even more of a valid reason to use their DNA or a loved one to identify the dead.
The problem with consent for using DNA of the deceased arose when DNA profiles were used to identify bodies in a particular battle from the World War. 250 sets of human remains were excavated from the site from the battle of Fromelles in 2009 and matched with their descendents and relatives who came forward with their DNA profiling (Scully, Woodward). The identification of the dead body unites the deceased with the living one again almost a century later. However, the issue of consent as the unidentified are unable to provide consent. This results in a paradox since they are technically still unidentified before the DNA matching so a relative cannot give consent either. Another issue is that it can create repercussions that could arise from the sharing of the DNA can inadvertently provide information about other members of the family that did not share consent such as traits associated with inherited disease and predispositions to said disease. However, the deceased deserve the dignity to be identified, so it raises ethical concerns on is DNA profiling is a necessary evil to identify the abandoned dead.
Another ethical concern is the problem of neurological emergency services in third world countries identifying bodies. Presented with a case study in India specifically, there is no data on unknown patients or systematic studies on their specific subgroup of unknown patients. In a study done by Umesh, Gowda, Kumar, etc, they investigated the clinical, socio-demographic, and investigational profile of these unknown patients in India. They identified a pattern of the common causes of the admission into neurology finding seizures, metabolic causes, and neuro-infections as the primary reasons. The main issues that come to light from this study is that India lacks an efficient emergency service system since they cannot properly identify the patients that may end up dying. The government must develop mobile emergency units to handle the unknown population as well as a protocol to handle the unknown persons that arrive. It is hard to for third world countries such as India to determine what to do with these unknown subjects since the countries have little resources and education. The following proposed standard operating procedure produced by the authors of the study should be followed by emergency personnel handling unknown patients in third world countries:
Third world countries also have trouble respecting the dignity of individual’s death after natural disasters. A good example of this is the 2010 hurricane in Haiti when the government mishandled the dead. The disorganized handling of the dead can be due to in part by the corrupt politics and unstable government prior to the natural disaster. Many survivors who were related to the victims were resentful towards the recovery teams as they were put into dump trucks and scattered in mass graves with no input from loved ones. It can be particularly emotionally damaging when someone does not know the fate of a loved one (Recovery and Identification of the Missing after Case Studies, 20). The deceased from natural disasters should be identified rather than buried in mass graves. Then, the living can begin the proper coping process and protects the dignity of the deceased. Like the issue with neurology emergency services, third world countries should put policies in place for the handling of the dead after natural disasters. A permanent disaster relief organization should be created to coordinate rescue teams and put identification efforts as a priority to bring relief to the victims (Recovery and Identification of the Missing after Case Studies, 29).
While many different issues may cause a body to be unidentified, there are not many options for identification in such an instance that do not involve invasive procedures. According to The National Association of Medical Examiners’ Forensic Autopsy Performance Standards, autopsy must be performed in the event that a body is discovered and autopsy may help identify the subject. The practice of performing autopsies on unidentified human remains is incredibly common. One study at the Calcutta police morgue in India looked at two thousand five hundred and fifteen autopsies that occurred over a two year period, and found that about 25% were subject to this invasive procedure (Chattopadhyay, Observations).
This creates a dilemma as autopsy runs up against many cultural and religious traditions and practices. Besides Christianity, the three other most common world religions all hold some objection to the performance of autopsy in their religious canon. The Jewish tradition requires the burial of the dead as quickly as possible, with the entirety of the remains intact. This means that autopsy is performed only in rare cases. Israeli law, up until recently, required the consent of the next of kin and three legal officials before the performance of an autopsy, which would notably be impossible in the event of an unidentified body (Parks, 512).
The Islamic tradition similarly forbids the procedure in theory. The Q’uran states that “the breaking of the bone of a dead person is like the breaking of the bone of a living person.” However, some less conservative Muslims allow for autopsy, even in cases not mandated by the courts. In these cases, the consent of the next of kin is needed, in keeping with tradition (Parks, 512).
Hinduism considers autopsies to be “extremely distasteful” (Parks, 512). But these are not the only traditions that reject this proceeding of modern forensic science. Rastafarianism, Greek Orthodoxy, Shintoism, and Zoroastrianism all have religious oppositions to the performance of autopsies.
This presents some legal challenges in nations like the United States, where religious freedom is tantamount. It is a cultural issue wherever it may occur, as respect for religious tradition is a human right – but there has been pushback by the legal system here in the US. In Harris County, Texas, lawmakers are pushing back against religious exemptions to autopsy. Two laws run up against each other in this case – one which requires autopsies to be performed in the event of unknown cause of death, and one that permits families to reject autopsy for religious reasons. This is not quite as relevant to out topic, since in order for a religious exemption to be considered the identity of the deceased must be confirmed, however, in cases where the dead remains unidentified, we may still be violating religious tradition with knowledge.
Jay David Aronson, Alex John London. “Recovery and Identification of the Missing after Disaster: Case Studies, Ethical Guidelines and Policy Recommendations.” (2011): 1-53.
Parks, David G. “Legal Issues: Religious Beliefs and Objection to Autopsies.” Laboratory Medicine, vol. 27, no. 8, Aug. 1996.
Peterson, Liz Austin. “Harris County Challenges Religious Limits on Autopsy.” Houston Chronicle, 2008, www.chron.com/life/houston-belief/article/Harris-County-challenges-religious-limits-on-1664818.php.
Scully, Jackie Leach, and Rachel Woodward. “Naming the Unknown of Fromelles: DNA Profiling, Ethics and the Identification of First World War Bodies.” Journal of War & Culture Studies5, no. 1 (2012): 59-72.
Yadav, Ravi, Achary Umesh, Gurus Gowda, Channaveeracharinaveen Kumar, Dwarakanath Srinivas, Bharathrose Dawn, Ragasudha Botta, and Sureshbada Math. “Unknown Patients and Neurology Casualty Services in an Indian Metropolitan City: A Decades Experience.” Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology20, no. 2 (June 2017): 109-15.
ICRC. “MISSING PEOPLE, DNA ANALYSIS AND IDENTIFICATION OF HUMAN REMAINS.” A guide to best practice in armed conflicts and other situations of armed violence, second edition, (2009): 1-52.