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Medicine and the Law

Who owns human tissue: patients, hospitals, researchers or others?

Loane Skene, Paul Nisselle

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Abstract

Who owns the body parts, tissues and fluids that are separated from us from time to time? Professor Skene reports and comments on a recent Supreme Court of Western Australian ruling that human tissue is, legally, property. Dr Nisselle cites further related cases and says ownership is a matter for public policy.

Article Extract

Who owns the human tissue stored in a laboratory after surgery or research? Is it ‘property’ like a watch or a book? Is it capable of being ‘owned’ in a legal sense? If it is not property, how else could human tissue be categorised? Is it necessary to legally categorise it at all?

The Supreme Court of Western Australia has recently taken the first step in answering these questions: it ruled that tissue removed from the body is legally property so that it can be ‘owned’. However, the court did not have to decide the more difficult question of who owns it.

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