Mummy Rights: Do Ancient Dead People Deserve Medical Privacy?

By Eliza Strickland | September 13, 2010 11:15 am

mummyOur medical establishment has elaborate rules governing patients’ privacy and ensuring that embarrassing medical details don’t become public. But when King Tut is diagnosed with a disease–or even when researchers turn up something as sensitive as signs of inbreeding–it makes headlines across the world. That’s just not fair to Tut, two researchers are arguing.

Anatomist Frank Rühli and ethicist Ina Kaufmann of the University of Zurich, Switzerland argue that mummy research needs an ethical overhaul. In their paper, published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, they note that probing a mummy is an invasive process that can reveal intimate facts, and point out that the mummy never gave informed consent for these procedures. Rühli suggests that mummy researchers should weigh their scientific objectives against the rights and potential wishes of the long-dead individual.

Søren Holm, the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Medical Ethics, told New Scientist that researchers should ask themselves if they’re motivated by voyeuristic interest.

Holm, a philosopher and bioethicist at the University of Manchester, UK, wants researchers to think about whether their work is motivated by scientific inquiry or simply by curiosity. “Do we really need to sort out the intricate details of Tutankhamun’s family history?” he asks…. “I try to treat mummies like patients,” he says. “I don’t like it if researchers make fun out of them, or show them to gruesome effect.”

At the very least, mummy researchers, that means no dancing around the lab and making mummies reenact Steve Martin’s King Tut routine.

Related Content:
80beats: What Killed King Tut? Incest and Malaria, Study Says
80beats: Scientist Smackdown: Did King Tut Die of Malaria or Sickle Cell?
80beats: X-Rayed Mummies Reveal That Ancient Egyptians Had Heart Disease
Discoblog: Secret Mummy Formula Will Make You Look Young Forever
DISCOVER: 5 Questions for the Mummy Doctor

Image: Wikimedia Commons

  • DJB

    I think we should give a certain amount of time say 500 yrs after death. Then the people who knew the person would be gone. I think research into family history and illness in fine. I do not think it is an ethics question at that point.
    Some times I think people bring these things up to make a name for them selves. I fighting for rights for a being that did not have those rights, but it sounds good to be on the right side of a none issue.

  • Meg

    You have to have some sort of statute of limitations on these things. The dead deserve some dignity (such as not taking dead bodies Halloween parties), but there’s a difference between undignified horseplay and scientific and historical research. It actually is useful to look for clues in mummies for things like family history and cause of death. This type of research is important for times when the historical record is incomplete and / or suspect. At this point, I don’t think King Tut cares a whole lot what we think, but we should strive to treat bodies with respect.

  • mike o

    good comments. further, echoing DJB, there is not and has not been a single person alive for thousands of years remotely tied to mummies who have been deceased for thousands of years. they’re not violating any living families wishes and there is no potential for private information to be gained about any specific living relatives; in fact we’re likely all living relatives.

    the only ‘entity’ that stands to be harmed by this invasion of ‘privacy’ is the disembodied soul of the deceased. and I have about as much respect for that nonsense as the souls of the dead grass i trudge over in my front yard.

  • Brian Too

    I don’t know, it feels weird that we know their names, their families, and there’s the person in a recognizable body. We know exactly who these mummies are, or were.

    Their goal was to live eternally in the afterlife, and they were awfully successful by most measures.

    More than anything it’s knowing their name, knowing their history, and reading their story in their contemporary writing. It’s intimate and creepy at the same time.

  • Sheridan

    Wow it’s freaky that we no that much

  • Rhacodactylus

    No, they don’t, get on with the research.

  • Bertrum

    In the case of mummies, they went to extraordinary lengths to make sure they were preserved so they could live forever. If you consent to having your brains pulled out through your nose in order to achieve immortality, then you are unlikely to object to folk knowing you had nookie with your relatives to maintain that immortality.

  • Almafuerte

    There is no god, and there is no afterlife. When you are dead, you are dead, and if there’s something we can learn from you, we are going to do it.

    I am sick of idiots, religious or otherwise, interfering with science.


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