The Question of Consent

When presented with the word consent, I think of the diverse usage of the word in different situations–consent between partners engaging in intimate relationships, consent for a company to use a photo, consent for a researcher to study an individual’s demographic data, and consent for organ donation after death. The amount of situations that require consent is overwhelming. However, respecting individuals requires consent. Blindly taking action can easily offend someone or cross their personal boundaries.

Reilly’s post The Unnamed Dead asked a question that sparked my thinking: Should bodies be donated for medical purposes if the person has not given consent pre-mortem? There is the golden word of the 21st century–consent. Although legislation regarding consent for anatomical study post-mortem has improved, it is not perfect. Previously, as discussed in Washington’s Medical Apartheid, it was difficult to get enough bodies for medical students to operate on. To fulfill this need, “grave robbers” went into predominantly African American cemeteries because they could barely afford funerals, let alone protection for their graves. Legislation even supported this racial disparity, as “Georgia legislature considered a proposal to send the bodies of executed black felons to medical societies for anatomical dissection” (Washington, 127). Thankfully, medical schools now get bodies donated. A major question arises when the identity of a dead individual is unknown. Since the body will not be returned to the individual’s family, what is wrong with using this body to advance medicine? A lot. The individual cannot consent; they may have consented to post-mortem anatomical study, but that cannot be certain. It is disrespectful to the individual and their family to subject the body to research without consent.

Fortune’s Bones unraveled a story behind a skeleton that was on display in a Connecticut museum. The skeleton belonged to Fortune–a “husband, a father, a baptized Christian, and a slave” (Nelson, 12). Fortune’s consent to be used as an anatomical specimen was never asked; therefore, he should have been buried respectfully according to his family’s wishes. Instead, Fortune’s owner dissected Fortune’s body and passed the skeleton down through generations of his family until it ended up in a museum. Fortune did not consent for his body to go down this path before he died.

The question of consent in post-mortem medical research made me think of another area in which consent is emphasized–the Yes Means Yes affirmative consent movement. It differs from the previous “no means no” standard; Yes Means Yes “established that consent is a voluntary, affirmative, conscious, agreement to engage in sexual activity” (End Rape on Campus, 2017). The same standard regarding consent in sexual relations should be used when asked with Reilly’s question, and with Fortune’s bones. Since Fortune did not explicitly consent for his body to be used for anatomical study, it should have been returned to his family for them to honor him as they wish. In no case should an individual’s body be used for medical research if they did not consent to it pre-mortem–affirmative consent is required.


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