An Unattainable Search For Consent

Coming to what will soon be the conclusion of this class, I want to revisit an issue that I touched upon previously in three other blog posts regarding my family’s possession of a human skull and how this class has impacted our view of this possession. Throughout this semester my understanding of consent has evolved and I have come to better understand how critical it can be in a medical setting. This understanding of consent was enhanced after learning of the violations of it in the cases of Alice in Zulus, all of the many victims in Medical Apartheid, in the case of Fortune in Fortune’s Bones and of others we have discussed so far this year. This understanding has been something I have shared with my family from time to time and has led us to struggle with our possession of our skull. This is due to the fact that we don’t know if it was obtained with or without consent and in a prejudicial manner or not. As we have come to realize this issue doesn’t have a simple solution and may be something we struggle with so long as we posses the skull.

I have continued to relay what we have learned throughout this semester to my family and as a result, our conversations about our possession of the skull has definitely intensified. I can tell that I have changed my families view on the skull in that they now all express their concerns from time to time about how our skull might have been obtained in a prejudicial manner without consent of its original owner. This is especially true in the case of my Dad who I can tell struggles a bit more than any of us with the ambiguity of the skull given his long-standing history with it. He has brought it up unsolicited a few times in conversations between us and is something I wish I could help me resolve. This ambiguity is an issue for all of my family though and we all agree it’s bothersome at times. This issue was most recently brought up again in my house after my mother and I visited the African Burial Ground National Monument over Thanksgiving break and saw an example of some remains that showed signs of having been “spirited by night from the graveyard” (Washingtonp.121) by medical students for dissection. This experience really made what I had been telling them all semester real as it bothered both of parents and brother when they made this connection.

If racism was present in medical practices during the early days of NYC and was even present and an issue when my Dad was a resident during the 80’s, then I think it’s not impossible that the skull we possess might have been taken from a non-consenting individual on account of their race. Thinking about the skull being taken without consent is nauseating and in moments like this I would rather we just put it to rest. However, as we all realize in my family, this is not necessarily the case for our skull as there’s a strong possibility that it was consensually donated. My father always reminds us of this possibility and refers to instances where he knew of people donating their bodies during his residency. Further, even authors like Washington describe how practices in the obtainment of bodies have improved even though a “disparity still exists, but in a less dramatic form.” (Washington p.139) Thus, the ambiguity that creates our fears also acts to reduce them as we also cannot say that the skull we have was not donated or stolen due to a racial prejudice.

Personally, not having clarity on our skulls past is bothersome and something I have been trying to tackle for a while now. Today’s discussion of the man with the “Do not resuscitate tattoo” reminded me of this struggle and brought this issue back to mind during my day. As person who finds comfort in facts, I was envious in a way of the doctors who were treating this patient due to the fact that my family and I haven’t been able to find a solution to what to consensually do with our situation as quickly as these doctors did. They were lucky in that they could find  legal documentation to verifying what actions they should take to consensually handle their situation unlike us with our skull in my families case. I feel like my family and I are stuck experiencing what those doctors must have experienced in the first few seconds of reading their patients tattoo before they got the ok to treat them. I feel like we are also stuck realizing that there’s an obvious path we could take but that might violate consent while not doing anything might be a violation also. Albeit our situation is not as severe as theirs was, I believe our struggles to find the intended consent is similar. Thankfully they were able to find clarity but this unfortunately has not been the case for us. I don’t think that we might ever find this solution though and this is something we are going to have to deal with going forward as long as we chose to keep the skull. If we do ever come to a resolution I will definitely share it but as of right now, we are stuck in this stasis.

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