A consultant in England contacted the Medical Protection advice line after she found a human skeleton in her loft while in the process of moving house. Dr Heidi Mounsey, Medicolegal Consultant at Medical Protection, looks at the scenario and considers the legislation involved.
A consultant in England contacted the Medical Protection advice line. She was in the process of moving house and had found a human skeleton in her loft which she been given as a medical student by her grandfather to help her learn anatomy. She had forgotten about this in the intervening years and was worried whether she was now breaking the law by keeping the bones in her house.
The relevant legislation to consider is the Human Tissue Act 2004 (the Act), covering England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In Scotland, there is separate legislation which is the Human Tissue (Scotland) Act 2006.
The Act established the Human Tissue Authority (HTA) to regulate activities involving the removal, storage, use, and disposal of human tissue from both living and deceased individuals.
Human tissue is defined as material which has come from a human body and consists of, or includes, human cells. It is an offence to remove, store, or use human tissue for scheduled purposes without appropriate consent.
Scheduled purposes include research, transplantation, post mortem examination, public display, and education and training; and the HTA issues licences to establishments storing and using human tissue for these purposes.
It would therefore be possible to donate the skeleton to a medical school for teaching purposes as long as the medical school held the appropriate HTA licence.
It would be also allowable to keep the skeleton or to gift this to another individual if the primary purpose of use and storage was for private study. A licence from the HTA would not be required unless the skeleton would be placed on public display.
The Human Tissue Act sets out in section 32 that it is an offence to engage in commercial dealings in controlled material for the purposes of transplantation. Controlled material as defined in the Act is material which:
(a) consists of or includes human cells,
(b) is, or is intended to be removed, from a human body,
(c) is intended to be used for the purpose of transplantation, and
(d) is not of a kind excepted under subsection (9)
Subsection 9 reads:
The following kinds of material are excepted—
(b) embryos, and
(c) material which is the subject of property because of an application of human skill.
Further, subsection 10 states:
Where the body of a deceased person is intended to be used to provide material which—
(a) consists of or includes human cells, and
(b )is not of a kind excepted under subsection (9),
for use for the purpose of transplantation, the body shall be treated as controlled material for the purposes of this section.
While it is therefore permissible to buy or sell human bones as this is not explicitly excluded by the above (and the Human Tissue Act in general is silent on the sale of bodies and body parts for purposes other than transplantation), one of the guiding principles of the Act is that of dignity and this should be considered whenever contemplating the disposal of a human skeleton.
In relation to this, the HTA states, “A key principle on which the HT Act is based is that all bodies, body parts or tissue should be treated with respect and dignity. The HTA considers that the need to maintain dignity and respect is paramount in the handling of all human bodies and tissue.”
The Act and the HTA do not mandate particular methods of disposal, but in general this should be done respectfully such as via cremation or via incineration performed separately from the destruction of other clinical waste. It may also be possible to bury the skeleton and the local burial authorities should be consulted if this is considered.
If further guidance is required, Medical Protection members may contact the medicolegal advice line for additional support on 0800 561 9090.
Human Tissue Act 2004
Human Tissue (Scotland) Act 2006