Law on removal of organs at post-mortems `is a mess'

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THE LAW over the removal and retention of organs at post-mortem examinations is a mess and requires urgent clarification, the chairman of the public inquiry into the Bristol heart babies disaster said yesterday.

Professor Ian Kennedy criticised the confusion created by the law which caused grief and distress to thousands of parents whose children died and who have recently discovered organs were removed and kept without parental consent.

The practice was disclosed at the Bristol inquiry last March and hospitals around the country have admitted they have collections of such organs

Professor Kennedy said: "There is no doubt the law [was] and still is both complex and obscure. I am sure the panel will press for clarification of the law and will probably make some suggestions." Earlier, two diametrically opposed legal opinions were released on the removal, retention, and use of human tissue following post-mortem examinations.

The London solicitor Cameron McKenna, was commissioned by the inquiry to explore the "legality of the practices and views current in 1984-1995" adopted in Bristol. It says coroners may authorise the retention of tissue only to ascertain the cause of death. Once removed, the tissue becomes the property of the pathologist and there is no limit on how long it may be kept.

But lawyers for the Bristol Children's Heart Action group, said once the coroner's post-mortem examination was finished, the pathologist had a legal obligation to return any body parts to the relatives so they could bury the body. Professor Kennedy said the panel would consider changes to the law, first deciding what was ethically appropriate.

The inquiry is investigating the care and management of children who underwent complex heart surgery at the Bristol Royal Infirmary in the 12 years to 1995. One expert witness said there are at least 11,000 hearts and other organs retained nationwide, mostly without the consent of parents.

Last week, the Secretary of State for Health, Alan Milburn launched an inquiry at Alder Hey Children's Hospital, Liverpool. The hospital has 2,000 child hearts stored without the consent of parents. An inquiry chaired by the Government's Chief Medical Officer, Professor Liam Donaldson, is looking at the wider issues.