Macabre findings

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 January, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 January, 2003, 12:00am

It was like a black farce in desperately poor taste. Body parts kept being unearthed at a landfill in Tseung Kwan O and, for three days, no one came forward to claim them.

Police suspicions that a serial killer might be at large ebbed when medical books and chemicals were found near the discarded limbs, suggesting they had come from a university or hospital. Still, no one owned up.

Finally, yesterday, the University of Hong Kong took the blame, explaining that the body parts got mixed up with construction waste when its medical faculty moved home.

At a press conference, the dean of the faculty rather inappropriately described what had happened as a 'mishap', and a 'stocktaking error' - adding to the sense that the severed torsos and thighs were being treated like so many pieces of lost luggage.

True, there are unlikely to be many grieving relatives bemoaning the indignities bestowed upon the corpses of their loved ones. The bodies taken by universities for medical research are often those of society's flotsam and jetsam - people who died with no one to give them a funeral or to care what happened to the body after death. However, the danger of this episode is that it threatens to send out a highly negative message to people who are considering donating organs after death, organs that are so desperately needed for life-saving transplants.

Few bereaved people in Hong Kong are prepared to offer organs for transplant because of traditional beliefs. Fewer still will be prepared to make the sacrifice if they see body parts that are surplus to requirements treated with such gross disrespect.

Far from being a black comedy, what happened at Tseung Kwan O may turn out to have much darker implications for the efforts to change attitudes and persuade people to carry donor cards.

An investigation is to be carried out and it is vital that it is thorough, transparent and that anyone found to be responsible is dealt with appropriately. It must ensure proper procedures are put in place to make sure this never happens again. Legislation covering all aspects of the medical waste disposal process - including the licensing of contractors - has been proposed by the government, and its swift passage would be another welcome step.