American-born feminist, theologian and independent politician, Katherine Zappone, Minister for Children, referred in the Dáil yesterday to the 474 “unclaimed infant remains” which were transferred from mother-and-baby homes and related institutions, to medical schools in Irish Universities. Same were transferred into the anatomy departments of Irish medical colleges here in Ireland right up to the mid 1960’s.
The Minister stated she wished to offer solidarity and a personal apology for the wrongs that were done to those affected.
While apologies and offers of solidarity are all very well, one must ask the questions:
(1) Were there any laws broken when such transfers of unclaimed infant remains were transferred from these homes to Irish Universities?
(2) Do we now need to change or update existing law with regard to such matters?
In 2017 we must consider ourselves as living in more enlightened times. We learn that today, Friday 10th March 2017, that what is described as a highly original and thought-provoking exhibition of human anatomy will come to Dublin for a limited time only. Yes it is the ‘Human Body Exhibition’, which also features the bodies of genuine humans. The specimens featured were donated in accordance with Chinese law to the Dalian Hoffen Biotechnique Laboratory, which conducts research into plastination and provides specimens to medical schools.
This exhibition the purpose of which we are told is to further educate, is expected to run for six months and the promotions company founded by Eamonn McCann and Denis Desmond (MCD), have sent invitations to medical schools and primary and second-level students. Tickets however are priced at €14 for adults and €8 for children.
This exhibit has indeed attracted criticism since it is not possible to attest as to whether any of the specimens voluntarily donated their bodies, or whether they are instead the misappropriated remains of executed Chinese political prisoners, latter who had not given their consent to have their bodies shown, following their execution.
Should the Irish people at this time be upset by the arrival of this “highly original and thought-provoking exhibition of human anatomy”, in light of the 474 “unclaimed infant remains” similarly transferred from mother-and-baby homes to Irish medical schools between 1940 and 1965 ?
Prior to the Anatomy Act of 1832, the only legal supply of corpses for anatomical purposes were those condemned to death and dissection by the courts who were often guilty of harsher crimes. However those sentenced by Courts did not provide enough subjects for medical schools / private anatomical schools. During the 18th century hundreds had been executed for what we regard today as trivial crimes, however by the 19th century only about 55 people were being sentenced to capital punishment on an annual basis.
As many as 500 dead bodies were needed annually due to the expansion of the medical schools. Interfering with graves was not a felony, rather a misdemeanour in common law and therefore only punishable with imprisonment and a fine, instead of transportation or execution. Thus the trade of Body Snatching became a sufficiently lucrative business with the authorities tending to ignore what they considered a necessary evil.
The business of ‘Body Snatching’ became so prevalent that it became necessary for relatives and friends of deceased persons to watch over bodies until burial, and then to keep watch over the very grave itself to halt violations. Mortsafes, (a framework of iron bars placed over grave sites) and Iron Coffins, where affordable, had to be used frequently.
Graves were dug quite shallow and ‘Body Snatchers’ or ‘Resurrectionists’, as they were known, would dig at the head end (West) of a recent burial, using wooden spade (quieter than metal implements). On reaching the coffin, they broke the side open before placing a rope around the corpse and dragged it out. Stealing jewellery or clothing would cause them to be liable to a felony charge, so in many cases they were careful not to steal either.
Resurrectionists were also known to hire women to act as grieving relatives and claim the bodies of the dead from within poorhouses. Often poorhouses received a small fee from undertakers, or resold the bodies (especially those with no family) to doctors. Women also attended funerals acting as grieving mourners to ascertain any future hardships these Body Snatchers might later encounter during disinterment. Even bribed servants would sometimes offer body snatchers access to their dead master or mistress lying in state; the removed body would be later replaced with suitable weights in closed coffins.
Remember in more recent times the huge furore over Irish human tissue banks and the removal of organs retained for further examination and sometimes subsequently used for educational and research purposes, dealt with by the Dr. Deirdre Madden Report on Post Mortem Practises & Procedures.
Enough with the apologies and offers of solidarity; our legislators now need to sit down and ask the question: “Do we now need to change or update existing law with regard to such matters?” We as a nation can no longer afford the costs of day after day public enquiries, followed by the inevitable compensation claims in an attempt to remove our guilt, especially with regard to matters of Church and State, and which once were seen as being morally quite acceptably, by Irish Society, all those decades ago.