Saturday, 13 April 2013

Grayling on Respect for the Dead

There's a piece by A. C. Grayling criticising the notion of respect for the dead in the Independent. It isn't directly related to organ donation, since it's really concerned with the (im)propriety of speaking ill of Margaret Thatcher, but it occurs to me that 'respect for the dead' is a more general notion.

It's often assumed that we ought to respect someone's wishes concerning what happens to their organs after they die, hence why we give people the opportunity to record their wishes through donor registers and the like. It's sometimes pointed out that we don't think this respect, if demanded at all, is an absolute demand on us. Imagine a militant vegetarian who said that, after their death, they would like their rotting body to be left outside their local McDonalds, or something. We wouldn't feel any obligation to comply with these wishes, since we also accept that people's rights over their bodies can be circumscribed on grounds of public health (or perhaps even decency).

Unsurprisingly, there's much controversy about the implications of this for organ donation. Burying or cremating someone with their organs, which could have been used to save lives of those needing transplants, could be said to be similarly objectionable. That is, there's a case that could be made that, given what's at stake here, we ought to be prepared to override the wishes of the deceased. I'm not endorsing this position, just pointing out that we need to confront issues of the respect owed to the dead.

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