A domestic human taphonomy facility?
An article published in Nature on 2 May 2019 reports that, from documents received under a Freedom of Information request, the UK appears to be close to opening its first “human taphonomy facility” (HTF) (a.k.a. “body farm”) for forensic research. This post considers the issues of law and religion that this possibility raises, although it does not enter into the scientific debate concerning the value, or otherwise, of these facilities. A wide range of information on HTFs may be readily obtained from an internet search; however, we have not included links to media and other reports which show images which some may find distressing.
Human Taphonomy Facilities
An HTF or “body farm” is a research facility where the decomposition of a human body can be studied in a variety of settings. The first facility of this type was established in 1987 at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and there are currently ten installations worldwide: eight in the United States, one in Australia and, more recently, another in Amsterdam.
“These generate data on tissue and bone degradation under controlled conditions, along with chemical changes in the soil, air and water around a corpse, to help criminal and forensic investigators. Researchers argue that they provide information crucial to criminal investigations that can’t be obtained from equivalent animal studies, but critics say that they are gruesome and that their value to research is unproven”.
Although there are sites in the UK such as that at Wrexham Glyndŵr University which are used for forensic research using the bodies of animals, there are none which use human remains. The possibility of an HTF has been the subject of much media speculation, and researchers have been advocating the establishment of a UK facility.
In 2017, Rose Mary Johnston, Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellow, published “The Operation of Body Farms – Learning Points for Setting up a Human Taphonomy Facility in the UK” (“the Johnston Report”). Johnston has worked in Crime Scene Examination for the Police Service of Northern Ireland since 2005, and since December 2016 has been a Major Crime Forensic Adviser for PSNI, where she was a Crime Scene Coordinator for Murders and Major Crime Scenes.
The Johnston Report was based upon visits to the Forensic Anthropology Centre (FAC) in Knoxville and the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER) at the University of Technology Sydney. These were made in order to research how body farms are set up and run on a daily basis. The Johnston Report notes that in 2017, Amsterdam’s Academic Medical Center (AMC) obtained a permit to open Europe’s first taphonomic cemetery, which would be similar to those in America and Australia, but it was only planning on experimenting on buried human remains.
Given the status of Nature as a widely-respected journal and the FoI response as the source of the information, this recent report is clearly significant. The article indicates that progress has now been made and a site in the UK has been selected and work started. The FoI response does not reveal the exact site, but suggests that the facility is being developed on land owned by the Ministry of Defence.
The Johnston Report states that at the Knoxville FAC unit “there is no federal or state legislation that deals directly with the body farms and the research they do. However, the University has legal counsel who will give advice and guidance when required” (page 10). With regard to the AFTER facility in Australia,
“Legislation covering the operation of the body farm in Australia appears to be close to existing legislation in the UK. As in the UK, any facility which deals with human tissue measuring more than 1cm³ has to be licensed by the government and is regularly inspected to ensure it complies with the legislation. This is covered under the Human Tissue Act 2004 in the UK, and the Human Tissue Act 1983 and Human Tissue Regulation 2015 in Australia”.
In 2017, when speaking on HTA Strategy 2016-19: Year Two, the chair of the HTA said [emphasis added]:
“In many of the areas where we regulate, there are new products and scientific advances that were simply not contemplated at the time the Human Tissue Act was formulated. This year alone, cryopreservation, body farms and synthetic organ development all became emerging areas where the HTA has no statutory remit to regulate, but areas where we will use our principles as a framework to guide professionals and assure the public. While these activities remain outside of our formal regulation, the challenge for the HTA is to continue to maintain the confidence of professionals and public in the use of human tissue”.
Dr Anna Williams, a forensic anthropologist at Huddersfield University, has been involved in talks with the Human Tissue Authority (HTA) about the feasibility of the UK following the lead of America and Australia and setting up the country’s first human taphonomy facility. In 2017 the HTA was quoted as stating it was in regular contact with Dr Williams about the idea of establishing a regulatory regime for a potential facility. A spokesman for the HTA said:
“The Human Tissue Authority, with the Forensic Pathology Unit of the Home Office, is considering how to bring human taphonomy within the scope of the HTA’s regulatory remit, or another suitable regulatory system. Our aim is to ensure that – were such a facility to be established in the UK – the consent of the individuals who donate their bodies would have primacy, and the activities taking place would be subject to the same standards as those required in other areas of research where human tissue is used.”
Under the HTA 2004, an appropriate consent is required for an organization to be approved by the Human Tissue Authority (HTA) to undertake activities regulated under the Act for the purposes identified within Schedule 1. Under section 1(11) HTA 2004, the Secretary of State may by order: (a) vary or omit any of the purposes specified in Part 1 or 2 of Schedule 1, or (b) add to the purposes specified in Part 1 or 2 of that Schedule. If taphonomy research were to be designated a “scheduled purpose”, institutions could apply for an HTA licence to carry it out.
The purpose within the HTA which most closely relates to the operation of an HTF is para. 4 of Part 1 to Schedule 1, viz. “Obtaining scientific or medical information about a living or deceased person which may be relevant to any other person (including a future person)”. It is possible that a provision for the designation of taphonomy research would follow such a format.
On 15 March 2019, the Organ Donation (Deemed Consent) Act 2019 was given Royal Assent. The Act made changes to section 3 of the Human Tissue Act 2004 (“appropriate consent”: adults), which will mean adults in England will be considered potential donors unless they chose to opt out or are excluded. However, the provisions relating to “deemed consent” apply specifically to the purpose of transplantation.
Unsurprisingly, the prospect of body farms in the UK does not appear to have been broached by faith groups, although their opinions on organ donation are well documented. The NHS has produced a short summary with links to the views of various faiths. which asserts: “the major religions in the UK support the idea of blood and organ donation and transplantation. Faith should not be a barrier to donation”. Whilst this is probably correct with regard to the principle of organ donation, it is not quite as clear cut with regard to the application.
The General Synod of the Church of England has been supportive of organ donation – see GS 2022A and GS 2022B – although the Church has been less enthusiastic about the “deemed consent” for the recent “opt out” provisions. Relevant parts of the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church (CCC) include [emphasis added]:
“Respect for the person and scientific research
2296 Organ transplants are in conformity with the moral law if the physical and psychological dangers and risks to the donor are proportionate to the good sought for the recipient. Organ donation after death is a noble and meritorious act and is to be encouraged as an expression of generous solidarity. It is not morally acceptable if the donor or his proxy has not given explicit consent. Moreover, it is not morally admissible to bring about the disabling mutilation or death of a human being, even in order to delay the death of other persons.
Respect for the dead
2300 The bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity, in faith and hope of the Resurrection. The burial of the dead is a corporal work of mercy; it honours the children of God, who are temples of the Holy Spirit.
2301 Autopsies can be morally permitted for legal inquests or scientific research. The free gift of organs after death is legitimate and can be meritorious.”
This was further explored moral theologian William E. May in an article in EWTN News (2011). He noted the importance placed in Roman Catholic Canon law on an ecclesiastical funeral: Canon 1176 §1 requires that “deceased members of the Christian faithful must be given ecclesiastical funerals according to the norm of law”. Further provisions on the celebration of funerals are within Canons 1177 to 1182. These issues of canon law will be problematic were the remains of the deceased are not returned for burial.
Whilst progress towards a UK Human Taphonomy Facility is at an advanced stage, the Secretary of State must make changes to the HTA by Order for taphonomy research to be designated a “scheduled purpose” before an institution may apply to the HTA for a licence to carry it out. Faith groups have as yet not expressed views on the prospect, but important factors are likely to be: whether any trauma which the donated bodies are subject could be justified as “respect for the dead”; the treatment of the remains after their use of taphonomy research; and the scientific value of the results obtained vis-à-vis the moral justification for the work.
This year, Anna Williams, Christopher Rogers, and John Paul Cassella of the Department of Biological Sciences Secure Societies Institute, School of Applied Sciences, University of Huddersfield published Why does the UK need a Human Taphonomy Facility? The abstract concluded:
“…The existing arguments for and against the establishment of a Human Taphonomy Facility in the UK have been examined. Given recent media interest in the possibility of the establishment of a Human Taphonomy Facility in the UK, and the surrounding controversy, it is important to evaluate the potential benefit or harm of the creation of such a facility to Society and the scientific community.”
However, not all are convinced of the benefits of HTFs. In 2917, Professor Sue Black, a forensic anthropologist at Lancaster University, wrote in the Journal of Forensic Science, Medicine, and Pathology:
“We are often asked in the UK ‘why don’t you have a body farm’? Maybe the more appropriate question would be ‘why do we need a human taphonomic facility’? Where is the incontrovertible large-scale evidence that animal facilities are not good enough? We have had 35 years of research from human taphonomic facilities, if we still don’t have the answer to this core question after that length of time, maybe we are asking the wrong question or perhaps we are simply have unrealistic expectations.”