History, Department of


Date of this Version

January 1998


Published in Stored Tissue Samples: Ethical, Legal, and Public Policy Implications, edited by Robert F. Weir. University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, 1998. Copyright © 1998 the University of Iowa Press. Used by permission.


In this essay I outline the wide range of ways that human beings have used body parts in the past, primarily within Anglo-American cultural frameworks and experiences. I concentrate on practices much more than on the formation of theories (e.g., development of abstract legal perspectives or philosophical analyses of the "body") or the expression of particular ethical principles (e.g., should body parts be used? should medical researchers be allowed to use tissue samples stored from days before informed consent?). A focus on historical actions, including suggestive comments on how these actions made sense at particular times and places, offers us a way to look at the harmonies and tensions between expressed values and cultural practice. At a time when taking, storing, and using human tissues for a variety of purposes seems to have become a common practice in Western biomedicine with little advance discussion about their status in law or contemporary ethics, a historical perspective can sharply remind us that practices always express cultural values (whether overt or hidden) and that cultural values vary considerably among different populations, even within a single overarching group defined by religious or political boundaries, be they medieval Europeans or twentieth-century Americans. To create useful, fair, and sensitive ethical guidelines for future use of human materials requires that we take the diversity of beliefs and practices of a pluralistic society into account.

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