The Matter of Life and Death: Ethics and the Human Body

Sir James Underwood: The Matter of Life and Death: Ethics and the Human Body

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Watch a video of Sir James Underwood's Distinguished Lecture

The Matter of Life and Death: Ethics and the Human Body

Wednesday 21 April 2010
Newton building, NTU City site

Lecture synopsis

In his lecture, Sir James discussed the ethics of human tissue retention, the UK legislation and the emotional elements of bereaved families.

The human body is the obvious focus of much medical research. Studying human tissues, even from the dead, leads to discoveries and new treatments for alleviating suffering and prolonging healthy life. However, the body and its parts also have symbolic significance, particularly for bereaved families, and the agony some experienced because of unauthorised or undisclosed organ retention has led to new human tissue legislation in the UK.

But there remains a tension between the life-saving medical uses of human body parts and the emotional reactions often elicited by such work. Do we all have an overriding duty to facilitate the tissue-based research from which we may ultimately benefit or is patient autonomy, manifested by consent, unarguably essential? Would 'presumed consent' deprive people, patients and their families of altruistic opportunities to make good come from their grief?

Using practical examples, this lecture dissected and examined these and other challenging issues at the interface between science and humanity.

Speaker biography

Sir James Underwood is Emeritus Professor of Pathology at the University of Sheffield and latterly Dean of the Faculty of Medicine. While President of The Royal College of Pathologists (2002–2005) his longstanding interest in ethical problems arising from uses of human tissue enabled him to lead the profession's response to the widely publicised 'organ retention scandal'.

He has served on the Retained Organs Commission and the Human Tissue Authority, and has advised the Medical Research Council and General Medical Council. His distinctions include the Gold Medal (2006) and the Cunningham Medal (2005) of the International Academy of Pathology, the Doniach Award (2008) of the Pathological Society, and, for his undergraduate textbook, the British Medical Association's Student Textbook Award (2005). He was awarded a Knighthood for services to medicine in 2005.

Professor Sir James Underwood