Do Egyptian mummies have a right to privacy?

Published on September 13, 2010   ·   No Comments

by Jo Marchant

SHOULD we consider the privacy or reputation of the individual when analysing an Egyptian mummy? The assumption that ancient corpses are fair game for science is beginning to be challenged.
Though strict ethical guidelines apply to research on modern tissue samples, up until now there has been little discussion about work on ancient human remains. In a recent paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics (DOI: 10.1136/jme.2010.036608), anatomist Frank Rühli and ethicist Ina Kaufmann of the University of Zurich, Switzerland, argue that this is disturbing because research on mummies is invasive and reveals intimate information such as family history and medical conditions. And, of course, the subjects cannot provide consent.
“The human body, alive or dead, has a moral value,” says Rühli, who is himself involved in mummy research. He says that no matter how old a body is, researchers must balance the benefits of their research against the potential rights and desires of the deceased individual.
For example, the release of information about the medical history of an ancient Egyptian ruler such as Tutankhamun could violate his wish to be remembered as strong and healthy. On the other hand, it could increase his fame, which would fit with his desire to be remembered after death.
Others in the field take a different view. Franco Rollo of the University of Camerino, Italy, has worked on Ötzi the iceman (pictured), who died around 3300 BC and whose mummified remains were found in the Alps in 1991. Rollo argues that ethical considerations are minimal if remains are “old enough to belong to an historical and social epoch that is felt sufficiently different and far from the present one by most people”.
Likewise, Helen Donoghue of University College London, who has analysed human remains for signs of infectious disease, says she has no qualms about research on mummies as long as it is carried out for valid scientific reasons and is not opposed by any descendants.
But Søren Holm, the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Medical Ethics, says ethical considerations do apply to ancient remains, especially where the individuals are identifiable. “In a certain sense these people still have a life,” he says. “We still talk about them. There are pieces of research that could affect their reputation.”

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