Rebecca Zanol

Rebecca Zanol

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A Body of Law II

My last blog dealt with the original rule that there is ‘no ownership in the human body’ and briefly discussed the origins of the ‘work and skill’ exception.

I now move on to a bigger and better question, what about tissue or other matter taken from your body? Surely, you would have ownership of that, right?

Well, let’s just say it’s complicated.

I would like to introduce you to Mr John Moore of Seattle USA.1 Mr Moore consulted with Dr Golde after being diagnosed as suffering from hairy-cell leukaemia. As part of his treatment Mr Moore had his spleen removed in October 1976 by Dr Golde. The operation saved Mr Moore’s life.

What Mr Moore did not know is that Dr Golde took his spleen and used it as part of research. In fact, Dr Golde knew that Mr Moore’s blood products could have great commercial uses before the operation to remove his spleen was undertaken.

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A body of Law

I’m going to ask you a strange question. Have you ever wondered whether you own your own body?

What if scientists took samples from you which were used to cure a deadly disease? What if the great legends of fiction became real and a modern day Frankenstein was created, with the use of your left arm? Could you claim millions of dollars for the use of your body part? Or would you simply receive a standard ‘well done’ award, which you later throw away or use as a coffee coaster?

To find the answer to these questions we have to travel back to 1614 England. At this time, Mr Haynes stood trial for breaking into a graveyard and stealing winding sheets that bound the corpses of four people.1 Now, I realise this is disgusting but apparently the cloth was worth a lot of money in those days. Anyway, Mr Haynes was found guilty of petty larceny.

Interestingly, in the course of the Court proceedings the Judge found that a corpse was not capable of owning property.2 As such, the winding sheets could not be owned by the dead bodies. Somehow, this ruling has been interpreted or associated with the proposition that a corpse is not capable of being property3, rather than a corpse is not capable of owning property.

Despite the confusing background of where the rule came from, the rule has been around for more than three hundred years and has become an established and authoritative rule.4 As such, you can wave goodbye to your millions of dollars and say hello to your coffee coaster.

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