Do mummies have a right to privacy?

Do ancient Egyptian mummies have rights to privacy or reputation? While working on modern tissue samples has been subject to strict ethical guidelines, little discussion has taken place about ancient human remains. But a recent paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics by ethicist Ina Kaufmann and anatomist Frank Rühli, of the University of Zürich, claims that research on mummies is invasive, revealing intimate information such as family history and medical conditions. The mummified subjects cannot provide consent – but surely they should be treated with respect.

Rühli, who is involved in mummy research, says "The human body, alive or dead, has a moral value". He also says that researchers must balance the benefits of their research against the deceased individual’s rights and desires, no matter how old a body is.

Franco Rollo of the University of Camerino in Italy, disagrees. He worked on Ötzi the iceman, who died in 5,000 years ago and whose mummified remains were found in the Alps in 1991. Rollo believes ethical considerations are somewhat insignificant if the remains in question 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".

Søren Holm, bioethicist and philosopher at the University of Manchester, in the UK, believes researchers should think consider whether their work is motivated by scientific inquiry or simply curiosity. He says it would be difficult to devise an all-encompassing policy, but believes a checklist of questions for consideration would be useful. However Rühli says scientists should take personal responsibility. "If a researcher is planning to work on a mummy, I would like to see that he thinks about it.” ~ New Scientist, Sept 10; Journal of Medical Ethics, DOI: 10.1136/jme.2010.036608

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