Background: Forensic pathologists face difficult moral questions in their practices each day. Consistent ethical and legal guidelines for autopsy tissue use extending beyond usual clinical and legal imperatives have not been developed in this country.
Objective: To obtain the perceptions of medical examiners regarding the ethical acceptability of autopsy tissue use for research and education.
Method: A written, self-report questionnaire was developed and piloted by a multidisciplinary team at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. All individuals who attended a platform presentation at the National Association of Medical Examiners Annual Meeting in September 1997 were invited to participate.
Results: Ninety-one individuals completed the survey (40% of all conference registrants and approximately 75% of presentation attendees). Sixty-three percent of respondents had encountered an ethical dilemma surrounding autopsy tissue use, and one third reported some professional ethics experience. Perspectives varied greatly concerning the ethical acceptability of using autopsy tissues to demonstrate or practice techniques (eg, intubation, brachial plexus dissection) and of fulfilling requests to supply varying kinds and quantities of tissues for research and education. Most respondents indicated that consent by family members was important in tissue use decisions. Respondents agreed on the importance of basic values in education and research, such as integrity, scientific or educational merit, and formal institutional approval of a project. Characteristics of the decedent did not influence decisions to release tissues, except when the individual had died from a mysterious or very rare illness. Attributes of medical examiners, with the exception of sex, also did not consistently predict responses.
Conclusion: Significant diversity exists in beliefs among medical examiners regarding perceptions of the appropriate use of autopsy tissues for education and research. There is need for further inquiry and dialogue so that enduring policy solutions regarding human tissue use for education and research may be developed.