Our limbs can be a crucial part of our sense of self and identity, so amputation is often traumatic to the emotional and psychological wellbeing of patients. For years after an amputation, patients’ ability to perform personal, work and leisure activities can be heavily impacted, and their body satisfaction can diminish. Once amputated, the limb moves from being part of the bodily whole, to being merely a ‘part’. Yet patients often still consider this ‘part’ as ‘theirs’. Even after the limb is physically removed, severance from the self is not absolute. In fact, the grief of losing a limb is suggested to be similar to losing a spouse.
Healthcare professionals have noted that some patients are deeply concerned about the disposal of their limbs when facing amputation surgery. Those who have experienced amputations often wonder what happened to their limb after surgery, demonstrating the uncertainty that exists around disposal and how amputated limbs get treated post-operatively. And amputation is a surgical procedure that is becoming more common, with rates suggested to double by 2050. The impact and implications of limb disposal could then touch the lives of many more people in the coming years. For all these reasons, it is an ethical question that must be discussed more openly.
At present in the UK, there are limited options for patients regarding limb disposal after amputation. Hospital incineration is the most common method, however recent scandals around medical waste disposal has raised questions about the dignity of such methods for patients and their amputated limbs. Given the grief that patients can experience in relation to amputation, considering a more dignified approach to the disposal of limbs, and the ethical issues of disposal, is now a pressing concern.
Existing discussion around ethical limb disposal has focused on issues around consent, specifically what do patients believe they are consenting to when they allow hospitals to dispose of their limbs. Work from the Netherlands has explored this issue from the perspective of ownership and rights, and concludes that hospitals and medical professionals in this context don’t have the right to dispose of limbs as the hospital wishes. The importance of the patients’ right to choose has also been highlighted in work by medical professionals in the UK, who point to the lack of options often facing patients around limb disposal. As Simon Marlow, a doctor at the Royal Cornwall Hospital Trust, notes: ‘The principals of medical ethics would suggest that patients with capacity have autonomy to decide how they would like their remains dealt with.’
Yet for many patients, such opportunity to state their preference or wishes around their own body parts is not offered or available. Standard practice in the UK is for limbs to be disposed of via medical waste incineration, which is a collective and impersonal process that routinely fails to offer patients the opportunity for the return of ashes, for example. The lack of choice, the challenges around consent, and the rights of the patient to have freedom to make decisions around their ‘lost’ limbs highlight the existing ethical tensions around limb disposal after amputation.
In October 2018, a medical waste-management scandal erupted in the UK. Healthcare Environmental Services (HES), a now-defunct medical waste management company, hadn’t been processing medical waste, including body parts, in a timely or appropriate fashion. A huge backlog of human body parts were being stored, unrefrigerated in a stockpile at a number of waste sites across the country. The scandal was framed as a shocking breakdown of procurement and National Health Service delivery but, as I have argued elsewhere, within this scandal, existing patients – specifically amputees – were largely overlooked. The question of how the patients themselves might feel about the possibility of their limbs being held in a waste stockpile was neglected, and that in itself raises ethical dilemmas about whose interests healthcare serves.
Within the consideration of the ethics of limb disposal, there are a number of tensions around the ‘ownership’ of limbs and who has the ‘right’ to decide on the disposal of the amputated part. Some scholars believe that a property approach is too individualistic, and therefore fails to look at the complexity of the wider picture. As Imogen Goold, an associate professor of law at St Anne’s College, Oxford, and colleagues have suggested, there are a number of different interests in bodily material, which creates conflict. There are also tensions deriving from the idea of ‘biovalue’ which relates to the intrinsic value found in biomaterial such as human tissue. While the ‘value’ of limbs is less frequently considered than the ‘value’ of internal organs (say, for sale or for transplantation), they do nevertheless have ‘biovalue’. Medical waste management is big business: HES, for example, reported record profits in the year preceding the stockpiling scandal. The sector as a whole might be worth £70 million pounds per year. Therefore, the waste-disposal industry sees limbs as part of its ‘business’, from which it makes profit to ‘manage’ such waste. Commercial activities often sit at odds with patients’ wishes. The logic of market forces is different from the logic of beliefs and desires around the patients’ own bodily autonomy.
How then do we reconcile the business of medical waste (if we agree that commercial activities are an inevitable part of this process) with medical ethics? The concept of dignity could help us, and the Royal College of Nursing defines it as:
To treat someone with dignity is to treat them as being of worth, in a way that is respectful of them as valued individuals … When dignity is present, people feel in control, valued, confident, comfortable and able to make decisions for themselves.
It is therefore not difficult to see why dignity is a central value of the European Convention on Human Rights (specifically Article 8), which attends to the right to respect for private and family life.
Although criticised by some as being an amorphous concept, dignity allows us to consider all the groups involved in limb disposal, ensuring it is ethical for all parties. The broad nature of the concept of dignity is a positive for ethical limb disposal: it could provide a framework to ensure that the grief that some patients experience after amputation is given an outlet through offering disposal options that support the grieving process. We have rituals and practices round the disposal of the deceased – we should too for the disposal of limbs. We must ensure that patients feel that their limbs have been handled appropriately, sensitively and respectfully – in other words, with dignity.