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Human tissues and remains

For reasons of belief and doctrine some religious groups and individuals – some Christians in particular – attempt to restrict the use of human tissues or remains such as embryonic stem cells for scientific or historical research, impeding medical or historical progress. We believe that the decision as to whether to permit any such research should be based entirely on secular ethical considerations and not in any way on religious considerations. We want the primary ethical consideration in scientific matters to be benefit to human beings.

We believe that human remains found in archaeological excavations should be treated respectfully. However, we support scientists, museums, and researchers in their quest for knowledge and aspiration to educate. Therefore, living persons, including distant relatives, should not be able to interfere with or prevent exhumation or retention of human remains for museum or scientific purposes. We do not want to see unique or significant collections of human remains lost forever, unnecessarily.

In depth

In 2015, the Church of England campaigned against Government regulations amending the 2008 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act that sought to legalise mitochondrial replacement therapy, enabling women carrying diseases in their mitochondrial genes to give birth without such diseases by using a third party donor’s disease-free egg (combined with the non-mitochondrial genetic material of the mother’s egg) in getting pregnant. This was dubbed as ‘three-parent babies’. Nonetheless MPs voted overwhelmingly to legalise the therapy.

Similarly, in 2008 religious campaigners attempted to have the same Act amended to legislate against treating same-sex couples equally to heterosexual couples in access to fertility treatment, to reduce the number of weeks into pregnancy that women are able to access abortion and to restrict stem cell research. The Roman Catholic Church in particular lobbied very hard on this Act using emotive misinformation about its contents and aims and putting pressure on Catholic MPs to follow the Church’s, rather than the Government’s, position. However, they were voted against in the House of Commons, reflecting the rational, scientific and ethical approach to these matters by the majority of MPs.

Any research using human tissues should be based on scientific evidence and facts, taking into account ethical considerations, such as the quality of life of the individual person.

More details on humanist views on stem cell research can be found in a discussion page on our website.

In 2011, the Council of British Druid Orders (CoBDO) tried to take a case to the High Court arguing that cremated human remains dating back over 5000 years should be returned to an ancient burial site at Stonehenge. The remains had been excavated in 2008 and were being kept for research purposes by the University of Sheffield. The case was rejected by the High Court in London, which granted the University possession of the remains for a further five years.

Similarly, in 2008-2009 CoBDO lobbied English Heritage to rebury prehistoric human remains at Avebury in Wilshire. This proposal was rejected by English Heritage after a consultation.

What we’re doing

Humanists UK lobbied on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, to bust the myths about the Act spread by some religious groups and set out our position on a range of issues including: the sex selection of embryos; the use of inter-species embryos for scientific research; parenthood in artificial fertilisation; and abortion. We similarly campaigned around the 2015 Regulations on mitochondrial replacement therapy.

We have continued to lobby government on these and other related issues, aiming to ensure any amendments to current legislation or any new legislation in this area are based on scientific evidence and not religious views, as such issues have arisen. The law in this area is currently strong but as medical technology evolves, the law periodically needs revising, and we are aware to this fact.

In 2009 Humanists UK responded to a consultation by English Heritage on the request for by CoBDO for reburial of human remains. In this response we argued that the unshared beliefs of people with little to no genetic claim over human remains should never override the enormous scientific, sociological and educational benefit to the public that they provide.

Get involved

Humanists UK consults with its members on human tissues, human remains, and many other scientific and ethical issues. We welcome your comments on these subjects, which help us to form our campaigns.

You can also research and take up these issues with your MP and/or local authority, or write to a newspaper. Our Take Action Toolkit has advice on how to go about this.

You can support Humanists UK by becoming a member. That helps in itself, and you can help even more by supporting our campaigns in the ways suggested above. But campaigns also cost money – quite a lot of money – and we also need financial support. You can make a donation to Humanists UK.

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