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Research involving biological material from forensic autopsies: legal and ethical issues.

S. Karger AG
Publication Date
DOI: 10.1159/000178150
  • Autopsy
  • Biomedical Research/Ethics
  • Biomedical Research/Legislation & Jurisprudence
  • Cadaver
  • Coroners And Medical Examiners
  • Ethics
  • Medical
  • Forensic Pathology/Ethics
  • Forensic Pathology/Legislation & Jurisprudence
  • Great Britain
  • Humans
  • Specimen Handling/Ethics
  • Specimen Handling/Methods
  • Switzerland
  • Third-Party Consent
  • Biology
  • Criminology
  • Law
  • Philosophy


Recommendations and laws do not always contain specific and clear provisions on the use of cadaveric material in research, and even more rarely do they address explicitly the ethical issues related to research on material obtained during forensic autopsy. In this article we analyse existing legal frameworks in Europe by comparing the legal provisions in 2 European Countries which are member states of the Council of Europe, the UK and Switzerland. They were chosen because they have distinct legal frameworks that make comparisons interesting. In addition, the detailed laws of the UK and a specific law project and national ethical recommendations in Switzerland permit us to define more clearly the legal range of options for researchers using cadaveric material obtained during forensic investigations. The Human Tissue Act 2004 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, its Scottish equivalent with the same title (2006) and the national ethical guidelines in Switzerland all require consent from the deceased person, an appropriate relative or a person with power of attorney for healthcare decisions before cadaveric biological material can be obtained and used for research. However, if the purpose of the autopsy is purely forensic, no such authorization will be sought to carry out the autopsy and related analyses, which might include genetic testing. In order to be allowed to carry out future research projects, families need to be approached for informed consent, unless the deceased person had left written directives including permission to use his or her tissues for research.

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